Updated: Jan 24, 2020
We had a few reservations about diving with the "gentle giants" at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Their four whale sharks are between 20 and 26 feet long - pretty much the size of a school bus. We were intrigued when we first learned that as certified scuba divers we would be allowed to dive in the huge Ocean Voyager exhibit at the state-of-the-art aquarium in downtown Atlanta. We would even be able to earn the PADI Whale Shark Distinctive Specialty Certification at the only place it is offered in the world. We had signed up months ahead of time, but as dive day got closer, we were a little nervous. It was reassuring to learn that while they are as large as whales, these sharks do not eat meat. They exist on massive amounts of plankton.
The aquarium has four gigantic whale sharks.
Our two-and-a-half-hour session included 45 minutes of time in the gigantic tanks after an information session and a behind-the-scenes look at the whales and inner workings of the aquarium. We learned that the aquarium's mission is to "encourage guests to explore majestic environments and play an active role in research and conservation efforts." The more we learned about the gentle giants, the more we became invested in the idea that we don't want to see them vanish by being over-fished. These particular whale sharks came from Taiwan, a country that has banned their use as food. After a short classroom introduction, we were taken to the part of the Ocean Voyager exhibit where the sharks are fed. There we were excited to see the four behemoths fed by trainers who approached them in small rubber rafts.
Now that we were fully sold on the idea that we would be meeting the sharks in their own environment, we went to the very comfortable changing rooms to don our wet suits, gloves and booties. We met the other dive participants at a platform near where we had seen the feeding.
The divers are all smiles before the adventure.
The instructors had us sit on the edge of the platform and roll into the 33-foot-deep water headfirst. After descending gradually while equalizing our ears, we met on the bottom. The technique that we were told to use was to follow the dive masters and kneel on the bottom at certain places. With these stops we were able to observe the whale sharks, manta rays, groupers and hundreds of other creatures on their terms. It is absolutely forbidden to touch the tank inhabitants. At times we were surrounded by schools of colorful fish or nudged by a giant sea turtle as it swam gracefully by. It was definitely an "out-of-body" experience.
One of the highlights of the dive was swimming over the 100-foot-long acrylic underwater viewing tunnel that was filled with aquarium visitors who eagerly snapped our photos while we swam alongside the sea creatures. It was fun to be an attraction alongside the usual aquatic stars. The aquarium also offers a "Swim with the Whale Sharks" experience for people who aren't certified divers but want to swim at the surface with the "Gentle Giants." As part of our experience, we were able to stay for the rest of the day and explore the aquarium's other amazing exhibits (though we were happy not to swim with piranhas in their tank!).
Piranhas are meat eaters so we were happy not to swim with them!