Day 2, Monday, January 22, 2018
Monday afternoon I went to the Georgia Aquarium, where I was going to swim with Whale Sharks! To say I was excited was an understatement! I have wanted to do this for several years, and I decided this would be my Christmas gift to myself. The Georgia Aquarium has the largest aquarium tank in the world, and is home to four whale sharks and four manta rays. They purchased their whale sharks from the Taiwanese fishing trade, where they would have ended up in the fish market – Taiwan at the time had quotas on whale shark fishing, so they wouldn’t have been able to just catch more after selling their sharks to the aquarium. But I digress.
Before my swim in the late afternoon, I had a chance to see all of the exhibits. They had a really cool tropical reef exhibit, complete with wave action. I enjoyed watching that one for awhile. They also have a bunch of penguins and puffins, doing penguin and puffin stuff, seahorses, sea dragons, and otters. The otters moved constantly, so it was impossible to get a non-blurry photo of them. The dolphin exhibit was closed when I was there, but I wasn’t too disappointed since I had the opportunity to swim with wild dolphins in Hawaii last year! As a complete aside, did you know there is a Chocolate Chip Sea Star!??
The aquarium has a couple beluga whales, and two albino alligators! Pirahnas, longcomb sawfish, Black Reeftip sharks, sea turtles, green sea turtles, cownose rays, and all sorts of other fish. The Ocean Voyager exhibit alone has an astonishing number of fish; the tank contains 6 million gallons of seawater! You can see all the different animals in the Ocean Voyager tank. It is a nice aquarium.
I checked in for my swim at about 4 pm; we were going behind the scenes at 4:30. I was so excited! There were 8 of us total, and we were paired up into buddy pairs. We were led back into the back area to check out the tank – it was interesting to see the tank from above! Did you know they have machines that agitate the water and spotlights at the surface so you can’t see what’s going on up there when you are looking at the fish from below?
We were fitted with our wet suits, gloves, booties and snorkels, and then headed into the dressing room to get changed. Those suckers are really hard to wiggle into, just so you know. Once we were dressed, we went back out to the surface of the tank, and they explained all the details. We were to swim very slowly, mostly just occasionally paddling with our hands, to move in a lazy figure 8 around the tank. The whale sharks stay near the surface, and they tend to swim close to the walls of the tank, so that’s where we would be. We were told that we shouldn’t touch them, but we didn’t have to move away if they brushed up against us!
We got into the water and headed out, being wrangled by a lead diver and another bringing up the rear, in case we went astray. A third diver was in the water getting video of the fish, and all of us. The water is 76 degrees, which gets cold after a bit!
This was an amazing experience. The whale sharks are so big and so gentle! Being in the water with them was like one big, long WOW! I literally said “WOW!” over and over again through my mouthpiece. The manta rays move more quickly and come right up underneath you! During the swim, one whale shark swam right underneath me and brushed my abdomen with her back and dorsal fin (I think they are all females). None of the manta rays touched me, but they did brush against a few of the others in the group.
The water is really clear, so you can see all the way to the bottom, and can see the other fish swimming. The Cow Nose rays, the Longcomb Sawfish, the Blacktip Reef Sharks, and countless other types of sharks and fish were all just moving below you constantly. It was so cool to see from this vantage point! The aquarium has a tunnel through the tank where the other swimmers’ family and friends could watch – it was interesting to see them standing down there under the water!
It is absolutely one of my favorite experiences so far in my life – I had so much fun doing this!
An added bonus was the fact that my swim coincided with an evening where they were switching over the computer software for the cash registers. Since the registers were shut down for this, they gave each of us a video of our swim for free! Normally you have to pay – it was an unexpected treat!
After the swim, I walked back to the hotel (in the only pouring rain of the trip), and brushed out my wet hair. I was hungry, so I headed right back down the block to Ted’s Montana Grill. Ted’s is a chain, founded by Ted Turner (of CNN fame) and specializes in bison with a Western Saloon theme. I had a delicious mushroom Swiss bison burger, with pickled cucumbers, and tomatoes drizzled with bleu cheese and balsamic. It was sooooo gooooood… I also had some Bison Ridge Merlot wine, which I believe is another Turner project – it was a great wine! The meal wrapped up a fantastic day!
Cost: $45.95 for general admission during peak hours (there are significant discounts for online pre-purchase, early or late arrival, groups, etc, and it is included on the CityPass). Swimming with the Whale Sharks (called the Journey with Gentle Giants) was $233.95 and included aquarium admission, the swim, a t-shirt, and a sticker. There is also a dive option for certified SCUBA divers.