Diving with the Whale Sharks at the Georgia Aquarium

GA Aquarium Whale Shark 2

Warning…educational information coming your way!

My son and I recently had the opportunity to experience the Journey with Gentle Giants at the Georgia Aquarium, meaning we scuba dived in the 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyageur habitat at the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta, GA. This experience is available to any PADI certified diver ages 12 and up. We also signed up for the PADI Whale Shark Specialty Course so we could learn everything possible about these amazing beings. The Georgia Aquarium is the only place in North America that offers this speciality course, and so when in Rome…

I gotta say I was excited to swim with these magnificent creatures that grow up to 26 feet long, (the females are between 23-26 feet and the males 20-23 feet). The Georgia Aquarium has four whale sharks, two juvenile males and two pre-adult females…love may be in the air soon, but not quite yet. You might be like WHOA I would never get in a tank with SHARKS! But have no fear, these gentle giants only eat krill and plankton, and their throat is as large as a quarter – so trust me my large derriere is not fitting down that mullet.

We arrived at our required check in time after having spent the morning enjoying the other aquarium exhibits, though my favorite exhibit by far was the Ocean Voyageur exhibit. The exhibit is enormous and there is a moving walkway where you get to just stand and be mesmerized by the thousands of fish in the tank. It’s kinda the lazy man’s intro to the ocean habitat, it was phenomenal to watch the sharks, fish, turtle, and manta rays swim over the plexiglass tunnel the walkway travels through. A side note on the aquarium…the cafeteria was really not the best, so come prepared to spend a good amount of money (our lunch was about $40 for the two of us) and leave with disappointment in your stomach.

Jake and I were introduced to the three other gentlemen who were also taking the course before retiring behind the scenes to tour the filtration systems that cycle the 6.5 million gallons of water every hour ensuring a perfect oceanic environment. We visited the cafeteria for the animals (they ate better than we did that’s for sure), the laboratory, and the veterinarian hospital before returning to the classroom to learn about the whale sharks.

Every year it is estimated as many as 100 million (yes that’s MILLION) sharks are killed for their meat, and sadly an estimated 73 million of that 100 million are killed just for their fins. While there have been global steps to eradicate the over fishing of sharks by some countries (Taiwan, United States, Australia, Mexico and others), most concerning is that China has not joined the conservation efforts and continue to slaughter sharks for their fins. The Georgia Aquarium has spearheaded conservation efforts to educate and end the over fishing of the whale sharks (considered “Vulnerable” on the endangered species list, with Pacific populations declining more rapidly due to over fishing), and other sharks in international waters – having partnered with Taiwan to help spread the word for conservation amongst Asian cultures. It truly is something more people should be aware of and push to have this practice outlawed for the benefit of one of our most important natural resources, our oceans. Globally there are approximately 8 people killed annually by sharks, and though any loss of human life is tragic the need for Apex creatures in oceans to maintain the status quo is critical for the long term life of our ecosystems.

Ok…off my soap box…

So Jake, I and our group of gentlemen learned about the whale sharks, and their docile nature. We learned the spots on whale sharks are like fingerprints, no two animals are alike, allowing the whale sharks to be identified. Georgia Aquarium has been able to learn many things from their Taiwanese whale sharks that have been with them since 2008. Just hearing about the herculean efforts to ship these creatures from Taiwan, where the Georgia Aquarium had to pay the government a per pound price as if they were food, to the United States was fascinating. You may not know this about me but I have a college degree in Logistics, so transportation kinda geeks me out. I’m very exciting like that.

After meeting our dive masters, if you watch This is Us you will appreciate this…the lead dive master we had (Mike) looks JUST like Jack so that was a nice bonus. We suited up in the required diving gear – wet suits, masks, fins, BCDs, gloves, and tanks (all provided by the aquarium) on our floating platform and waited for a clear moment to drop into the tank with these beautiful creatures. I did remind the dive masters Jake has Autism, and though he has dove a lot he can get a little how do you say…distracted. Mike/Jack assured me that they were aware and there was no issue. The Georgia Aquarium hosts the non profit Wounded Soldiers to dive and so Jake’s Autism was just no big deal.

We descended in the tank to the bottom and huddled up with our group. There was a lead diver, a safety diver, and a photographer along with the five of us ‘regular people’ diving. We gathered in a semi-circle before partnering (buddying) off to swim the tank. I have never been in a tank with fish before, so I was a little worried about bumping into the exhibits, and the little yellow tropical fish that nibbled on my fins when we first descended was a bit distracting but they eventually realized I was not food and swam away. Us divers stuck to the bottom third of the tank while the whale sharks stayed at the top 2/3rd of the tank. We swam over the tunnel that we had meandered on before, having an opportunity to wave at the crowds before slipping between a few rocks and arriving in front of the enormous picture window viewing area that is 63′ long, 25 feet high, and two feet thick. We were warned about the possibility of swimming into the window because depth gets a little wonky while under water. Since I didn’t want to be ‘that one’ that destroyed the Georgia Aquarium viewing window and allowing oh I don’t know thousands of fish and 6.3 million gallons of water to escape I opted to just stay as far away from that window as possible.

GA Aquarium Whale Shark2

My son also stayed back from the window, but as I hovered there watching the young children squeal with delight that the divers were waving at them I turned to my son and noticed he was interacting with the children on the other side of the glass. He always has been good with little kids, and so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I figured he would have had visual overload from the aquatic creatures and not even give an ounce of interest in the two legged ones outside the tank. I was wrong. He waved, he gave peace signs, and generally enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the children. Who woulda thought?

The other thing that surprised me, and yet shouldn’t have, was that as we swam amongst these epic ocean creatures my son was not looking up at the whale sharks and the manta rays as they did barrel rolls to eat their food, my son was looking down at the sand. Previously when we dive my son is NOTORIOUS for digging in the sand or searching the reefs to find the smallest thing – be it a shell, a nudibranch, a tiny cleaner shrimp, or a sea horse nestled amongst the swaying corals. I, and most of the other new divers, keep our eyes peeled for the big things – the turtles, eels, rays, barracudas, etc. But not Jake. He has always been fascinated with small oceanic creatures. I thought this time would be different, that he would for once focus on the large creatures all around us. So when he was intently digging through the sand with his gloved hands, I grabbed his arm and pointed up to the passing gentle giant. My eyes were wide with excitement and I thought he too would be interested in these creatures. He looked at me, frustrated and shrugged, then returned to his sand digging.

I gotta say I was a bit annoyed. WTF child. Here we are experiencing FOUR whale sharks up close and personal and he’s digging in the god damn sand. I could take him to Lake Michigan and let him dig in the sand. It wasn’t until we were out of the water that he turned to me and said, “Thanks a lot mom! I was digging for shark teeth and when you grabbed my hand I dropped a bunch!!”

Oops…sorry about that.

Well I guess the Georgia Aquarium Journey with the Gentle Giants has a little something for everyone. Here is the video of our experience for your enjoyment. I highly recommend it if you are a certified diver.

The Georgia Aquarium was kind enough to comp Jacob’s dive experience, however I did pay for mine. All opinions are expressly my own, as you would expect 😉

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