Last week I had an absolutely amazing experience! I got to swim in the Ocean Voyager Tank at the Georgia Aquarium where I came face to face with a Whale Shark.
Why would I willingly get into a tank that not only has four of the world’s largest fish, but also is home to thousands of other fish – some that, if provoked, might want to snack on me? Folks, the name of this blog is Kristie’s Big Adventure… work with me here!
It started a couple of months ago when I submitted my Adventure List to the syndicated radio show, The Bert Show. A week ago, I received a call from the show’s producer that I was in the running to be able to participate in the aquarium’s Swim With The Whale Sharks Program. I was elated! I was asked to come into the studio on Tuesday, along with other finalists to talk about why this was on our bucket list.
That morning, we gathered in the studio conference room – 7 folks very nervous about what we would have to do to get picked. Would we have to tell some sob story and get the sympathy vote? Would we have a challenge (there were a nervous few minutes when we contemplated what eating plankton might be like). We were ushered into the studio where they were live on air and we waited. After a brief tease, it was announced – we all would get to swim! Suddenly, six people who were my competitive rivals were my new best friends!
That afternoon we met at the aquarium where we were introduced to James who would be our host for the day. We started out with a bit of history about the aquarium and the fish that we would be encountering on the swim. In addition to the whale sharks, we would also be swimming with manta rays (the only ones in a US Aquarium), sting rays, zebra sharks, sawfish and the ominous sounding predatory trevally jacks.
After signing our waivers, we made our way down to the tank where we stood at the top. The place is huge! The tank, roughly the size of a football field, has over 6 million gallons of water which is recirculated every hour. Making the water salty like the ocean takes almost 2 million pounds of salt. While we were up there, many photos were taken and tweeted before we headed to the locker room to change into our wet suits.
After donning our oh so flattering wet suits, we were outfitted with our own regulator and air tank. This was much easier to use than a snorkel, and it also helped to keep us oriented face down in the water. The aquarium provided me with a prescription mask, so I could see clearly without my glasses (and the yellow mask made me easy to find in pictures and video). A quick group picture, and we were ready to get wet.
I was partnered as a swim buddy with Bert Show Cast Member, Kristin Klingshirn, who to say it mildly, was a little terrified. As we sat on the edge of the dive dock, we shared a last second look of “are we really doing this?!” and then it was into the water we went.
It took a while to acclimate ourselves to swimming slowly using just our hands to move us (they discouraged kicking, because it would send the fish away from us). There were a few bumps into the folks in front of us before we got into our groove. Then we were actually able to enjoy what we were doing.
In a word, it was amazing. The fish showed no fear as they swam under us, next to us and even toward us sometimes. Kristin had a small encounter with one of the aforementioned predatory trevally jacks. It swam right up to her face and stopped. After a few seconds of a staring contest, it darted off, scaring the heck out of both of us. The whale sharks would cruise right under us, sometimes even bumping us as the passed by.
We took a leisurely Figure-8 route around the tank, crossing over the acrylic tunnel that bisects the tank where we could wave at the spectators below. It was a peaceful swim – but a little tiring. It is hard to describe the thrill you get when one of these magnificent creatures would swim close to you. The manta rays were overwhelmingly beautiful, performing graceful barrel rolls and seeming to soar through the water.
The swim was over entirely too soon, and we reluctantly climbed out of the tank, each sneaking a last peek underwater before exiting. After a quick shower and changing back to our street clothes, we gathered once again in the education room to watch the video of our experience.
People who say that it is unethical to keep fish and animals in aquariums and zoos for entertainment value really miss the point of what the good people at the Georgia Aquarium are doing. Without their research and conservation programs, we would know very little about these creatures and how we can protect the species in the wild. Every dollar that the aquarium makes goes towards their costs and funds research. They are not for profit. Swimming with the fish they are preserving and educating the public about has definitely been one of the biggest highlights of my Big Adventure! Thank you to The Bert Show and The Georgia Aquarium for making it a reality!
(Look for me with the neon yellow mask!)