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12:01AM

Swimming with the whale sharks

I was going to make the posts happen today, somewhere along my family's vacation day around Atlanta.  We were going to spend 4-5 hours at the Georgia Aquarium, then maybe hit the Cyclorama and then be back at the mountain resort community where we're staying (thanks to a friend) for some swimming and then I'd have some portion of the eve to make some posts happen.

But while we were in the tunnel under the main tank at the aquarium, I spotted a worker holding a clip-board announcing dives and swims in the main tank--a gargantuan space about 50 ft deep and covering a footprint equivalent to a football field.  Well, after spotting the huge manta rays and whale sharks (biggest fish on the planet and much larger than great white sharks), I just had to step off the conveyer belt and inquire.  I was told there was only one "swim" space left for the late afternoon swim.  There was just no way we'd wait around that long so only one of us could swim, even though I knew how much my wannabe marine biologist Emily, still smarting from that missed family vacation on Kona in Hawaii where we snorkeled at length, really wanted to do it.  So I passed and got back on the conveyer belt.

Then the woman tracked us down later in the exhibit.  There were now two spots open.  So we decided to let Em (over 18) and Kev go, because any minor needed to be accompanied by an adult. The price was stiff, but we were cut a significant break for same-day reservations.  I was a bit hesitant, but after our day down in Andersonville/Plains was sort of slow (Sunday, following our great time at Stone Mountain all day Saturday), I was looking for that something special to highlight our last family-of-six vacation before the girls show up in late August (I will not be returning for the second trip, as my mother-in-law will accompany Vonne).  So I said yes and had the woman take us to the relevant counter to sign up.

When we got there, we found out that three spaces were available, so Vonne asked me to go and keep an eye on the kids.   Hmm, I thought to myself, swim in a giant tank full of all sorts of sharks and other magical sea creatures?  I said yes after a beat or two.

So we decided to make the aquarium a full day, because our swim drill would go on for a couple hours after the place closed.  We had lunch and then explored the rest of the place in a leisurely fashion.  It really is the greatest aquarium I have ever visited, and I've pretty much been to all the big ones in the U.S. Worth every penny and every hour.

The "swim" itself was quite the drill.  First a seminar on the process, safety, gear, etc.  Then to the locker room, where, waiting for us (since we provided dimensions) we find full wet suits with boots.  Then to the gigantic space over the huge tank--a scene right out of "The Abyss."  We put on "life vests" that contain a small scuba tank/regulator set-up, and then get our fins, gloves, and masks.  After more drilling, we go out to the floating dock in the middle of the huge pool, gear up the rest of the way, and then push off into the tank, quickly assuming the position of lying flat on the surface lest one of the big whale sharks come skimming by and smack into us.  Once all eight swimmers were readied in that manner, we took off in our formation:  lead guide, then 2 by 2s, followed by rear guide.  A third employee with full scuba set-up swam all around us taking video throughout.  So we took a big tour of the tank, staying along the surface and gazing downward.  No use of the fins, we were supposed only to swim with our arms in a breast-stroke motion.  Whenever the lead guide made a signal with her hands, we were supposed to freeze in anticipation of either the whale sharks or the pair of giant manta rays to skim right beneath us, sometimes so close that the fins would stroke us.  No touching, because a spooked whale shark can make for a bad swim.

No real fear of attacks, because the whale shark doesn't bit anything too big (small throat), but plenty of other sharks in the tank who would be willing, under the right circumstances. But again, no real danger.

Still, whenever one of these filter-feeding (thank God!) behemoths would glide at us and then swoop just below us, it was breath-taking--as in, tank or no, I couldn't draw a breath!  I would say that the whale sharks were almost 3 times my length and who knows how heavy. The mouths are frighteningly large, like swallowing your entire body would be a cinch.  And yeah, you know that ain't going to happen, but when that face comes out of nowhere and you seem him looking you over and then notice that super-wide head and mouth, you are plenty intimidated.

We swam in that manner for about 40 minutes, getting to wave to family members and onlooking visitors at various spots (the tunnel, and the great, two-story-high transparent wall).  All in all, a truly thrilling experience that had us buzzed for the entire ride back home to the mountain north of Atlanta.  

And now, three Stella Artois later, stuffed with ribs we still had left over from last night's feast in Atlanta, I've decided to watch a stupid horror film with my kids and skip trying to make the posts happen.

There will be a WPR feature up soon though, to tide things over.

No promises for Wednesday, and no apologies either.  My friend who let us have this place for the week warned me that this might happen.

Reader Comments (1)

I'm so jealous! I want to go the the Georgia Aquarium so bad! Whale sharks are on of the coolest animals. How many do they have there?

September 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNordictrack Nate

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