by Sharon Spence
At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta Georgia, wriggle into a waterproof lycra wetsuit and slide into the 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager tank. Just jump right in, don’t think too much about it.
Your tour guides are four whale sharks named Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko. These mega beauties average 18-32 feet long, but not to worry: they won’t eat you. They’re vegetarians. This wildlife encounter is more exciting than anything you’ve ever done in any cosmopolitan city, trust me.
I’ve signed up for the Aquarium’s “Swim with Gentle Giants” program, a unique opportunity for wildlife lovers of all ages to snorkel or scuba dive with the world’s largest fish. After a comprehensive Orientation session, the Aquarium outfits me with a sexy blue and white wetsuit, mask, snorkel and fins. Sitting at the edge of the Ocean Voyager tank, I’m not too thrilled watching a hammerhead shark and a fierce looking largetooth sawfish swimming below. Is this my last great adventure? The Aquarium’s team of expert divers and marine curators are already in the tank beckoning to me. I jump in.
Face down, arms splayed, the beauty is beyond belief. Even on a dive at the Great Barrier Reef or Belize’s famous Blue Hole, you won’t see this diversity of marine life on one reef: crimson snappers, humphead wrasses, zebra sharks, bowmouth guitarfish, spotted wobbegongs, thick lipped potato groupers, and southern stingrays. A Fish Fashion Show.
An elegant manta ray named “Nandi” undulates by, the first and only manta ray living in a US Aquarium. Just as I squirm around to see where the four whale sharks are, one floats under my belly. Seconds later, another one cruises past my left hip.
Did I win a Gold Medal splashing out of the water in fright? Truth: I forgot my name. Forgot I was in the Georgia Aquarium. I simply felt blissful awe for these gentle giants.
Lucky me, to be among them.
Our 45-minute snorkel was over too soon. The Aquarium dive team dragged me kicking and screaming OUT of the tank. “I’ll be back, “ I promised Alice, Trixie, Yushan and Taroko. “Thanks for your beautiful whale ness.”
Swim with whale sharks and manta rays at Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest collection of aquatic animals.
C2009 Sharon Spence Lieb