Whether you’re an avid diver or a never-even-gone-snorkeling aquarium enthusiast, this experience is something you’ll remember for a long, long time.
The staff at the Georgia 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.
What to Expect
The swim with whale sharks is a two and a half hour experience that begins with an education component (ours was delivered by the fabulous and funny Susan). The discussion includes details about the swim/dive and the animals you are about to see (hint: it’s more than just whale sharks.)
Then, you’re off to the locker rooms to change into a wetsuit (the Georgia Aquarium swim with whale sharks program includes all of the equipment; all you need to bring is your swimsuit and enthusiasm!)
After you’re changed, the swim/dive team outfits you with snorkel, face mask, gloves and shoes. Surprisingly, my biggest concern about the Journey with the Gentle Giants was not swimming alongside a none-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.
Thankfully, the divers assisting me very patiently adjusted and re-adjusted my face mask 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. Next to the gentle giants, this guy was my favorite. His skin looked like crushed velvet.
If you are an unsure swimmer, or have never been snorkeling, don’t worry, the divers take care of you. We had a woman in our group that had never snorkeled before. The team made sure to stay with her and even held her hand during the dive. She was rewarded when the whale shark swam so close, it touched her.
In the Water
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 – 40 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. One tip to remember: by swimming in a tighter pack, you increase the chances of getting an up-close look at the whale sharks, as you look like any other school of fish.
For some reason, I tended to be the problem fish, always floating away from the school. But the Georgia Aquarium team made sure to push me back into place, yet were good to wait until the gentle giant swimming near had passed. Another tip, if you have long hair like I do, make sure to pull it back before getting into the water. I kept trying to move my hair out of the way and that’s when my mask got a little off kilter.
After you’re done swimming with whale sharks, you’ll shower and change into dry clothes. The water in the take is pretty cold, so I recommend bringing a sweatshirt to snuggle in afterward. The group meets again in the education room to talk about the swim/dive and to view the video. (how they get it edited so fast is beyond me). 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. It’s worth every penny.
My father was concerned when I told him my son and I were going to swim with whale sharks. He cautioned that he didn’t think that was such a hot idea. Those things were big. What if they got hungry? I assured him that the whale sharks only eat krill, and even if they did get a taste for humans, their golf ball sized esophagus wouldn’t allow it. The Atlanta Aquarium swim with whale sharks is perfectly safe. All the fish in the tank are well fed, and aquarium divers are there to make sure everyone behaves.
It’s also safe for the sharks! The aquarium pool is filtered very well so there’s no risk of contaminates. It would be no different than you swimming at the beach – easy enough without harming the sharks there.
Why the Aquarium is the Best Place to Swim with Whale Sharks
The Georgia Aquarium is the only place in the Western Hemisphere where you can go swimming with whale sharks; and probably the only place in the world where you can swim with such a diverse variety of fish.
Our experience was pretty amazing, but not just because of the whale sharks. In addition to those gentle giants, I was most impressed with the black velvet like manta rays, one had to be at least five feet from tip-to-tip. The Georgia Aquarium remains the only aquarium in North America to exhibit manta rays, so this was truly an experience in itself.
We saw schools of giant grouper, and sharks too. I thought of my dad as I watched the sawtooth shark glide along the bottom. The spotted rays were the most prevalent, and their strange head reminded me of Sam the Eagle from the Muppets. I guess that is why they are called spotted eagle rays.
Are you ready to do this? It makes an incredible gift for someone who loves the ocean or ocean creatures! Birthdays, Christmas, Anniversaries…sign up now! You won’t regret it.
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Disclosure: 365 Atlanta Family is proudly an Ambassador for Georgia Aquarium…but it doesn’t influence what we share here. We love all they do to protect our oceans.
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