Swimming with the whale sharks

It could be the setting for a Jaws movie: six snorkellers wading like ducks in a row, cruising just below the surface of the water while watching exotic fish dart beneath them … all very peaceful, until the mysterious whale shark appears out of the deep blue.

The whale shark is one of the most perplexing and elusive creatures in the ocean, still largely a mystery even to the marine biologists who have dedicated careers to studying the creatures.

But here, in the confines of the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta, it’s impossible not to see the giant whale sharks — particularly when you’re in the middle of their fish tank.

It’s also somewhat hard to avoid them: the creatures seem more intrigued by the visitors, often lumbering toward them like slow, curious locomotives.

The guests are circling the world’s largest fish tank through the aquarium’s “Swim with Gentle Giants” programme, which plucks six snorkellers and six divers into the 24-million-litre fish tank each day.

The visitors are treated to close-up encounters of roving bands of sting rays, sleek hammerhead sharks, enormous grouper and countless other species. But the puzzling whale sharks are the real draw — and for good reason.

The aquarium is the only outside Asia to house the whale sharks, and the only in the world to offer tourists a chance to dive with the creatures. The programme’s directors pitch it as an innovative and safe way to help visitors better understand animals they would otherwise never see.

“An immersion experience is the ultimate way of connecting people and animals,” says Bruce Carlson, the aquarium’s chief science officer. “It’s a real opportunity for us to expand ways for people to get to know the animals here at the aquarium and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our visitors to see animals they’ll probably never get a chance to see in the wild.”

But the ambitious programme has raised concerns from critics who worry that dangling legs and curious tourists could stress the habitat of the whale sharks and thousands of other animals that share the massive tank.

“There’s a chance these animals can become stressed because of the increase in the amount of people in their environments,” says Lori Marino, an Emory University biologist who studies whale biology. “Not only can it affect their physical health, but [also] their mental health. And we don’t know how much stress this puts on the animals or how they could respond.”

The Georgia Aquarium is one of the few places that have ever attempted to house the creatures, and the only in the United States.

So far its record is spotty: two of the whale sharks have died since the aquarium opened in 2005. But the aquarium has invested in research projects on the whale shark in Mexico, Taiwan and Mexico, and the facility is quickly making a name for itself in the research community for its whale-shark work, thanks to divers who have already logged thousands of hours feeding and studying the massive animals.

Carlson says he gave the go-ahead to the new programme because the dives have so far had “no effect on the whale sharks’ behaviour”.

“We’re the experts on that, and we can make the judgement because we probably spend more time with whale sharks than anyone criticising us,” he says.

“Most people who have contact with them have probably had a minute-long experience in the ocean. You have to trust our judgement on that. We’ve gotten to understand their nature, and we feel quite confident that our presence is not affecting them.”

In many ways, the aquarium is charting new waters. A handful of other facilities offer diving or snorkelling experiences in their tanks, but none offers a setting as expansive as the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager tank.

Along with the whale sharks, the salt-water exhibit is home to thousands of other animals, including the largest collections of giant grouper, wobbegong sharks and a dozen other rare species.

The dive is far from a free-for-all. During a 15-minute briefing, guides stress a message of conservation and warn participants not to touch any fish while in the tanks. They then don wet suits, snorkels, masks and flippers before plopping into the salty water.

The snorkellers are forced to stay in a rigid line during the swim, kept in toe by dive guides and staffers armed with underwater cameras to document their journey.

It’s not a cheap trip, costing $190 for snorkellers and $290 for scuba divers. But the aquarium has so far been encouraged by the response. Aquarium spokesperson Dave Santucci says about 1 500 had signed up for the programme before its June 8 start.

Krista Massey, an aquarium member who previewed the programme, says she felt unnerved when she dipped into the water. “You know, there’s hammerhead sharks in there,” she says. “There’s all kinds of predators you’ve been scared of all your life, and all the sudden, you’re in their world.”

It didn’t take long, though, for her to feel more comfortable in the tank — and the experience gave her a deeper sense of wonder for the creatures floating around them.

“What you learn through the process is so much more than what most people know about these animals, and it teaches you a different type of appreciation,” she says.

Under the placid surface, too many fish to name swarm below, exotic creatures such as zebra sharks, cownose rays and guitar fish. A group of glimmering golden trevally shimmer around one bend. Not far from there, Grumpy the Grouper, a local icon, glowers near a window.

And of course, there are the four whale sharks, massive beasts that barrel around the tank as they wish, sailing agonisingly close to the awed visitors.

As the 30-minute experience nears its end and the six line up to depart the cage, the silence underwater is suddenly broken by a warning from a guide.

“Stay flat,” she yells. “Feet up.”

Then, a current ripples through the water. And the gentle giant swims by once more. — Sapa-AP

If you go …
The dives occur daily, 3pm for scuba divers and 4.30pm for snorkellers. Scuba divers are charged $290, snorkellers $190. Guests must be 12 years old to participate, and those between 12 and 18 must have a participating adult with them. Georgia Aquarium: 225 Baker St, NW, Atlanta

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