Swimming with Giants
January 24, 2011
I was very excited for the West Scholars trip to Atlanta, Georgia. The ’09 Cohorts and I were able to visit destinations all over the city, including the Kings Center and the World of Coke. However, I harbored the thought of my personal holy grail for Atlanta’s destinations: the Georgia Aquarium. The biggest aquarium in the world, it holds 8 million gallons of water and over 100,000 animals of 500 different species.
When my father and I had first heard about the aquarium a few years back, our inner aquatic enthusiasm reached new depths. It has always been a dream of ours to go to the aquarium together, but upon the opportunity to go with the West Scholars, my dad could have been happier for me to go for myself (so long as I took a lot of pictures). On top of that, he decided to up the ante. On the night before I left for Atlanta, he surprised me with a chance to swim with whalesharks, the biggest fish species in the world.
Coming into the aquarium, my friends and I had made plenty of lighthearted jokes surrounding the whole sharks-are-dangerous-and-you’re-about-to-swim-with-eight-of-them premise. But by the time we reached the Ocean Voyager Room, the tank holding the four whalesharks, four manta rays, 2 hammerhead sharks, 2 needle nose sharks, and a Barracuda, I was starting to realize just how much I appreciated each and every limb on my body.
Once we were briefed, suited, and fitted with air tanks, the last step was to simply take the plunge. It took no time to be swept away. The first animal I saw was a six-foot manta ray, about ten feet below me. Staring at it, I repeated a thought: There is no glass between us, is there?
We swam as a group. Two by two, we encircled the tank for thirty minutes in a figure eight pattern. The instructors told us that by swimming in a formation, the fish would identify us as a fellow school of fish, thereby feeling comfortable enough to swim closer. Wouldn’t you know it, the thirty five-foot whale sharks were among the friendliest.
At many points, the whale sharks would swim close enough for a swimmer to touch. At one point, I gasped to feel a whale shark’s tail fin skim across my stomach. The hammerheads and the other sharks, for the most part, stayed further down in the depths of the tank. It was all right by me.
The other members of my cohort were allowed to stay for the whole experience. I was surprised at the sound of my own underwater laugh when I saw them all, squatty and distorted, under the thick glass of the viewing tunnel. Before the dive, the instructors suggested to have a call signal—some sort of motion or hand gesture to let my classmates know that it was I under all the equipment. Poking fun at my pre-dive jitters, they determined I should flap my arms like a chicken. Hey, it served its purpose. But until this day, I still laugh to think of the immense calm I felt the entire time, under the slowed, graceful swimming of giants.