Guest Post by Liz Engle
One word to describe the swimming with the whale sharks as part of the Georgia Aquarium’s Journey with the Gentle Giants – Incredible!
Whether you’re an avid diver or– like me– a never-even-gone-snorkeling aquarium enthusiast, this experience is for you. The staff at the Aquarium are so well-trained in marine biology, ecology and the encounter experience that they really put you at ease (and get you excited) about getting into the water with some of the world’s largest animals. Once you’re swimming, you may never want to get out. It’s seriously that cool. Here’s what to expect.
Swim with Whale Sharks: What to Expect
The two and a half hour experience begins with an education component that includes details about the swim/dive and the animals you are about to see. Then, you’re off to the locker rooms to change into a wetsuit (the Aquarium provides all of the equipment; all you need to bring is your swimsuit and enthusiasm!). After you’re changed, the swim/dive team outfit you with an air tank (even for the swim), face mask, gloves and fins. Surprisingly, my biggest concern about the Journey with the Gentle Giants was not swimming alongside a nine-ton shark; instead, I was preoccupied with fears that my mask wouldn’t fit right or that I would have trouble breathing through my mouth or that I would be an awkward swimmer (seems silly, but my best stroke is the doggie paddle). Thankfully, the divers assisting me very patiently adjusted and re-adjusted my face mask and wet suit hood until I felt comfortable enough to get in the water (they are really pretty amazing!). Once I was in the water, all my worries were washed away (pun intended) as I looked down and saw a giant manta ray swimming beneath me.
While in the water, three aquarium divers accompany you: one to lead, one to film and another to make sure everyone (fish and participants) are safely interacting with each other. The swim or dive lasts 30 minutes, during which time you swim in a figure-eight pattern (just like the whale sharks) around the Ocean Voyager tank. The whale sharks were very curious and swam right up to us several times. My swim partner took a little ride on a whale shark when her fin was caught on his- she bought the video just for that! One tip to remember: by swimming in a tighter pack, you increase the chances of getting an up-close look at the whale sharks.
Swim with Whale Sharks: Post Swim
After you’re done, you’ll shower and change into dry clothes. The water in the tank is pretty cold, so I recommend bringing a sweatshirt to snuggle in afterward. I also opted to wear the wet suit hoodie during the swim, which keeps you warm and your hair out of your face. The group meets again in the education room to talk about the swim/dive and view the video. Everyone receives a group photo (taken in full dive gear BEFORE getting in the water) and a t-shirt. The video can be purchased for $50.
One of the other swimmers in our group was an avid diver with more than 1,000 dives around the world. To say he was excited would be an understatement. He loved every minute of the swim and said that it was – without a doubt – the best swim of his life because of all of the different fish you encounter: everything from the whale sharks and manta rays to giant grouper and myriad schools of fish. There truly is nowhere else in the world where you can experience so many different marine wildlife.