Georgia Aquarium, home of the only whale sharks living indoors in the United States, has a unique program that allows guests to swim with these gentle creatures, along with manta rays and other sharks, in their largest exhibit. It takes about half an hour to swim a figure 8 around this 6.3 million gallon fish tank. You can choose to SCUBA dive if you are certified, but I am not, so I chose to snorkel on top of the water. This is the Journey With the Gentle Giants program.
I was nervous at first, because what if water got into my mask or I breathed in water, or everything failed all at once? The safety briefing beforehand put me at ease. Professional divers went over all the equipment and how it worked. They even told me that I would be wearing a piece of Styrofoam around my body so that I couldn’t sink even if I wanted to. You can do this swim even if you don’t know how to swim at all!
We jumped in the water and put our faces underwater while holding onto a dock to get used to the equipment and learn to trust it, as well as getting our video taken for the $50 video you can purchase after the swim. Once everyone was calm and ready, one dive master led the way while another followed to prevent anyone from falling behind. We were also watched from the surface to ensure that if there were any problems, someone would notice and rescue us.
Time almost stopped as I looked at the animals swimming below me. I had to hold my breath as a whale shark swam so close to me I would have touched it if I had not intentionally pulled away. One even bumped into me as it swam. These animals are absolutely huge, in a way that you cannot appreciate just seeing them from behind glass. This swim made me fall in love in a way that I previously had not done, despite spending a lot of time at the aquarium.
I have never been so relaxed in my life as I was when we finished our tour and stepped onto land. It was better than a half hour massage or yoga. I felt amazingly giddy for a few minutes, laughing in the locker room with the other women who were on the tour with me. By the time I got home, I felt the calmest feeling I have ever felt.
At $225, this is not a cheap program, but compare that to the price of going to The Caribbean and renting all the equipment, and a hotel, and a flight, and dive masters, and it is actually a lot cheaper than you could get any similar experience. It is also the only place in the United States you can swim and be guaranteed to see whale sharks and manta rays. Overall, I rate this program two huge thumbs up, and would definitely do it again!