A Whale (Shark) of a Tale
I would manage to be the guy to figure out a way to be attacked by a shark in the middle of Georgia, much less a whale shark that only eats plankton.
Perhaps some background is in order?
I love sharks. I really love sharks. Diving with a Great White is on my bucket list, and not far behind that, is diving with a whale shark. Whale sharks are an oddity in a species of animal known for its oddities. Here you have sharks, an entire group of animals known for their ferocity and their stream-lined form, and the largest among them, the whale shark is a polka-dotted plankton eater whose look inspires more smiles than dread. I mean just look at them:
No, that still doesn’t quite get the full effect.
That’s better. Seriously, how can you look at a whale shark and not smile?
So why do I mention all of this?
Every August, I make a trip to Georgia to see my godson on his birthday, usually taking a day trip to Atlanta along the way. My itinerary changes each time, but there is one I make a point of visiting every time, the Georgia Aquarium.
For those who have never been, the Georgia Aquarium is worth going to Atlanta for entirely on its own. One of the largest aquariums in the world, and home to the largest indoor tank in the world, a 6.3 million gallon habitat dubbed Ocean Voyager, and it has to be seen to be believed.
Manta rays seemingly fly through the water like jet planes, sawfish startle a school of rays from the bottom, and if you watch long enough, the only whale sharks in captivity anywhere in the Western Hemisphere swim right by.
Whale sharks: Each the size of a school bus, they’re the biggest fish on Earth, the biggest sharks on Earth, and the Georgia Aquarium is home to four of them. Once destined to be served up as food in a Taiwanese fish market, the aquarium bought them instead, building the Ocean Voyager exhibit to house them, named them after The Honeymooners and turned them into their star attractions. I know I must spend an hour watching them every time I visit.
Today was different though: today, I’d come to swim with them. The Georgia Aquarium has a program that let’s you snorkel with whale sharks, and after years of talking about it, today I finally did it.
If watching from the outside was a marvel, the view from the inside of the tank was simply incredible. One of the whale sharks brushed up against my leg not long after I’d entered the tank, and I had to struggle to repress a grin, mostly to keep my mouth from filling with seawater. It would be the first of many moments like that, swimming around in a football field full of fish with the sound of my own breathing to keep me company.
The highlight though came towards the end of the dive though. A manta ray had just sped past my right side, and after watching it fly by, I turned back around to see one of the whale sharks slowly swimming right towards me, showing no signs of changing course. The shark draws closer, and I slow down my swimming as my heart rate speeds up. Soon, I’ve come to a stop, but the whale shark has not, still swimming closer towards me.
It got close enough to me that if I’d reached out, I might have been able to touch it just above its wide mouth. I could see the barnacles growing on it’s belly, and count the spots on its back. I find myself staring into the eyes of the whale shark, and if only for a moment, I swear I felt it staring back at me. That moment took my breath away.
Not long after that, it just kept on swimming, passing just a foot or two beneath me. It was a moment I’m sure I’ll always remember, and one that stands in stark contrast to what happened next.
As I’m still processing what just happened, with a firm flick of its tail fin, which is as tall as I am, the shark hits me right in the family jewels, once more taking my breath away. This time I nearly swallowed my dive regulator too.
Try and top that for a fish story. After all, how many folks can say they’ve been rochambeau’d by the world’s largest shark?
I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, when I go back next year, I very well might do it all again. Next time though, I may have the foresight to wear a cup.