Diving with Whale Sharks in the Georgia Aquarium

**I uploaded this from my iPhone, so please excuse the formatting and/or spelling**

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When we got to the aquarium, the first thing we noticed were protestors they were picketing next to the line of people buying the tickets. They were holding signs such as “Georgia Aquarium = Enslavement!”, “You get to go home but they don’t” and “SHAME ON YOU!!!” The aquarium has recently started a dolphin exhibit and acquired beluga whales, which brought out the protestors. If you’ve seen the movie “The Cove”, then you will understand why they were protesting and how the dolphin trade is barbaric. Prior to coming to the aquarium I was wrestling with the thought of supporting an organization that would hold captive these magnificent creatures. After going to their site, I felt a bit less uneasy about it because they stated that the whale shark program helps bring awareness to their plight to survive, as well as research and conservation efforts of the species. They say this aquarium is the biggest in the world, it boasts something like 6.2 million gallons of water. When I read that online I imagined a stadium sized aquarium full of water, A sanctuary, so massive, so enormous, so worthy of being compared to the hoover dam or at least one of the great wonders of the world. Sadly this 6.2 million gallons of water equate to the size of about an olympic sized pool, not a hoover-sized deep dam or even small lake width that I had imagined in mind.

I immediately went and checked in with the dive team, while Monica, Seanna and Richard stayed back in the cafeteria (by the way they don’t serve sushi here). The dive package that I bought included a “behind the scenes” look at the aquarium. this behind the scenes tour was very short and boring, there was really nothing to see. One thing we did notice though, was how the acrylic (glass) distorts the perception of how big the aquarium really is. When you view it from a “normal” point of view you don’t have a clue how little this aquarium is — unless you take the behind the scenes tour.

Once I was ready and all geared up I was the first to jump in the water. My first view was a beautiful Manta Ray with a 15-20 feet wing span that came out to greet me; it swam about 3 inches from my head. Within 30 seconds, I saw them… And oh my goodness! How beautiful! How impressive! How majestic they were! They swam past me within 2-3 feet away. I was in enchanted, I was mesmerized. I was entranced at how close they came to me and how much detail you can tell because of the obvious clarity of the water. Their spots, the movement, their royal presence. I felt my eyes opening wide as my heart pumped adrenalyne as if I was a predator on the hunt, or fleeing prey. I swam next to them before I got called back by our dive master. There were all kinds of fish, thousands of fish… of all kinds, fish that it would take many dive trips to see, along with luck… lots of luck. I saw huge hammerheads, colorful small fish, huge 300 pound groupers. One of my favorites was the leopard spotted ray that made me think of it as the gladiator of the sea, with it’s lance-like 12 feet menacing barb. I also really liked a 12 feet guitar fish (half shark, half sting ray) that look like a miniature prehistoric sea monster.

After the initial euphoria of coming so close to 4 whale sharks, came the sad realization in which these creatures live. One of them swam so close to me, so slowly, rubbing its fin against the wall. It swam almost robotic like; it seems as if it had dulled senses and lost purpose. It swam against the wall as if looking for a way out, and what a sad sight it was. At that moment, my child like curiosity and excitement waned. I no longer saw them with the excited eyes like that of a child, where everything was just beautiful and everything is happy. I then realized the protestors were right. These animals here are imprisoned. We were able to go around the entire aquarium twice in a figure eight path during the duration of the dive, the sharks themselves would encompass the whole aquarium in less than 2 minutes while swimming slowly and without any effort, again and again they went past me from behind me, in front, my right, my left, above and below. And with each pass I felt more and more the weight of their enclosure. At one point I found myself saying I’m sorry to them, I’m sorry that I contributed to your prison walls… but I did not know… I wanted to believe everything I read on the aquarium’s site, everything the aquarium staff was saying.. that a portion of the proceeds goes to research, awareness and education; but a portion can be anything. It could be 10 dollars of the 350 dollars that I paid. I really wanted to believe that having them in this aquarium was good for the species, because it brought awareness to the general public. But I knew. I knew that it was cruel punishment for these majestic animals that know the depths of the seas, that travel the currents of the oceans from continent to continent and know the secrets of the immense world beneath the surface to be restrained to a pool. And I squirmed. I wanted to reach out my hand to it and comfort it. And hug it. And apologize on behalf of humanity, on behalf of those that were here to see them without knowing the injustice and the cruelty that is bestowed upon them for our curiosity and corporate greed.

After the dive was over we went to the shower room, and there were two types of moods there. Some were still ecstatic and some were somber. The newbies, those that were first time divers or have started in the past year were super happy. On the contrary, those that have been diving for years, the old timers, those that seemed to understand the gravity of the situation, those that appreciate nature were looking at the newbies with that look that said, “you just don’t understand..” or “you’ll learn.” Although it was nice, it was one of the saddest things I have seen while diving.. Had we seen a pack of killer whales attack a humpback whale and her calf, even kill the calf, that would have been natural, but this was not. This was corporate greed and human disregard for the wonders God has left us to be stewards of. The staff offered to sell me a DVD of the dive which showed footage of the whale sharks and the manta rays and all the exotic animals, and although I wanted to keep a record of what I had seen and show it, I decided I didnt want to contribute any more monies to a greedy corporation that masked itself behind as a facility that will benefit these animals.

To all of those that are planning on coming here, please don’t. Please do not support an organization that enslaves the magnificent creatures that belong in the wild, in their natural habitat. Consider this: I found out that last year two whale sharks died in this aquarium. Whale shark live an average of seventy years in the wild. In contrast, here is this heart breaking statistic: it lives an average of four years in captivity!! How heart wrenching is that fact? If you would like to see this creatures, save and take a family trip out to visit them in their natural habitat, there are many countries like Mexico that guarantee you will swim with them and have laws that are enforced to protect them so that they may live a natural life. In the final analysis, if I could go back in time I wouldn’t have contributed one single penny to this corporation. However, I must admit that I do not regret coming because I feel that somehow, someway, somewhere, what I have written above will be read by many that are curious about these beautiful creatures and may have thought about planning a trip to this aquarium; and will change their minds, opting instead to view them in their nature home, not their prison.

And so after drying out and putting my clothes back on, I found Monica, Seanna and Richard. And we left the aquarium. But these creatures stayed behind, doing finite loops within the walls they should have never known, looking for a way out, even if their way out is to be like the two previous ones that died there…

I have uploaded a video Monica shot from her iPhone to Vimeo. You can see these beautiful creatures there. I’ll embed it here when I get to a PC. The link is:

Georgia Aquarium dive with whale sharks from Alex Downs on Vimeo.

I strongly recommend that you watch it!