In January of 2016 I get an email from my sister-in-law in Panama, Maria Elena, she lets me know that my niece and nephew, JoAnn and Jaime want to SWIM with the SHARKS at the Georgia Aquarium when they visit in May. Immediately my interest is peaked. I access the internet several times and research and discover what the SWIM experience is all about.
I read many of the tripadvisor reviews and watch several of the movies posted on YOUTUBE of actual swims. Once I realize that when I take JoAnn and Jaime to the Aquarium, if I don’t join them, I have to wait 3 or 4 hours for them to complete the swim, I decide what the heck, I’m joining them.
I’m going to SWIM with JoAnn and Jaime and the sharks and all the other fish in the amazing six million gallon tank. Yes six million gallons, enough water to fill up about 300 swimming pools. And like a wonderful awesome Tia that I am, I recruited Tio Toby to come all the way from California to join us in this amazing adventure.
|L to R - JoAnn, Tia Elena, Jaime, Tio Toby|
In the past ten years, I’ve been to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta many times. For the first two years I had a season pass for the explicit reason: to sit in the Ocean Voyager exhibit and watch all the fish, swim and swim and swim. In the first few years of operation, the Ocean Voyager was the largest saltwater fish tank in the world and the viewing window into the tank like sitting in a large movie theater watching, admiring, enjoying the fish swim before your eyes.
It’s the best synchronized water ballet ever, there is beauty, grace, mystery, wonder, cadence, surprise, all the fish seemingly getting along.
Several times I took a day off work and got to the aquarium right at opening and many times I was one of the handful of visitors in the viewing area. I was hypnotized by the giant viewing area of the underwater world. I love watching the fish. The whale sharks fascinating for many reasons, primarily their size. There are 4 in the tank, they weigh on average 4000 lbs and on average 40 feet long. They are beautiful, regal, graceful animals. They dominate the interest of all who come to the aquarium. And then there are giant kite like manta rays, their flight in the water is one of a kind. There is so much to look at, notice, study, marvel at, I get excited every time I go.
Fast Forward to March, we purchase the tickets and were confirmed for the SWIM. And the Aquarium policy, no refunds. They will certainly reschedule participants, but there’s no backing out for a refund. I print the confirmation notices and the notion of excitement and adventure is conceptual, the date too far in the future, some 45 days away.
May arrives and JoAnn and Toby and Jaime arrive and soon it’s Monday 5/16 and we need to be at the aquarium around 2pm. Were all excited, we share our fears, our anxieties, our assumptions and away to the aquarium we go. When we arrive we tour the entire facility and watch scuba divers in the Ocean Voyager tank, they make everything look effortless, a tiny bit mysterious and FUN ! ! And then there's the whales, the gentle giants of the tank.
MAY 5/16 @ 4:30pm
Now were all at the designated meet area and one of the GA Aquarium Dive Masters, Brian, escorts the group of 8 behind the scenes to the top of the football field size tank. The excitement goes from zero to a million as soon as we are at the side of the tank and one of the whale sharks passes by on queue. According to Brian it was Yushan, they know the sharks by name.
|Toby listening to Dive Master, Brian|
Brian provides all the necessary information, answers all the questions, then were all escorted to a room to watch a short video and get detailed instructions on the snuba breathing equipment. At this point Brian is repeating everything he told us before. All the do’s and don’ts and why’s start to sink in: 8 guest in the water with 2 dive masters and 1 videographer and ALL THE FISH. Every time the group gets instructions we are reminded NOT TO REACH OUT and touch any of the fish.
The group gets instructions on wet suits, booties, gloves, the regulators, masks, and away we all go to the locker rooms to change into our swim gear. It goes fast, the dive masters do all they can to keep everyone calm, confident and reassured that everything will go exactly described. They do this several times per day, everyday, 365 days a year. Safety is the number 1 priority, since were swimming at the surface, if you need help, you raise your head out of the water and the safety diver will help out.
Getting into the wetsuit is foreign; it’s a very tight fitting, a thick black body glove, you feel constricted, awkward and protected all at the same time. You know you have to wear the suit, so you go with the instructions and it works. At this point, in my head, I’m telling myself to slow down, relax and be calm.
Now onto the oxygen source, the snuba tank, the regulator.
At the tanks edge all of the breathing vests are lined up with our names. The vest are all form fitting based on height, weight, and sizes provided to the aquarium when tickets are purchased. Before you know it, there is a group photo on the “bridge” and you are at the water’s edge, sitting on a platform, your feet in the water, ready for the plunge.
The dive masters build in time for each participant to get in the water to get used to breathing with the regulator and mask. Everything they describe in the initial orientation and video happens, much like a script. At any point you can stop, you can ask for help, you can switch from the snuba regulator to a standard snorkel.
Everyone in the group manages the regulator successfully so we are ready to begin the swim. The group is paired up, 4 sets of buddies, Elena & Joann, Jaime and Toby, Margaret and Christopher and Penny and Kathryn.
We’ve been briefed on a large figure eight pattern for the swim, the same pattern the sharks swim, and always always at the surface of the water. So at any time if you want to stop, ask for help, adjust your mask, you can; the buoyancy jacket does not allow your body to go below surface.
2 or 3 minutes into the swim, one of the whale sharks comes by for the first hello. I can hear my breathing increase, the inhale, exhale cadence a bit faster and deeper. I am thinking in my head, loud and clear, breathe, calm down, breathe, calm down. As I exhale the bubbles tickle the side of my face, it takes some getting use to.
|Elena and Joann|
I am excited and nervous and thinking, the 40 foot shark is swimming 18 to 24 inches from my body. It was awesome and incredible.
I know I need to calm down, I am breathing way too fast.
Immediately I start thinking about what I’m going to write about, how will I describe this foreign and fascinating 30 or 35 minutes and my mind’s eyes start to slow and observe and observe and within moments I’m settling in, waiting for the whale sharks to pass again. I see them in the distance, I know the pass will be soon.
I kept looking for my swim buddy, JoAnn. Sometimes I wasn’t aware of where she was, the safety dive master assured us that it was his job to keep us all in formation and swimming in the right direction, I decided not to worry about JoAnn’s exact location. I knew she was close by.
|Toby and Jaime|
Behind the scenes you see things in the tank that are industrial and very large. I saw several drain covers, I’m sure part of the filtration system. Pipes on the side of the tank spaced out every 10 to 15 yards. A large door to a holding tank. Certainly you get a better idea of the depth of the tank, imagine a beautiful salt water aquarium, then to that mental picture, add the idea of a football field.
Once I settled in I wanted to see every fish, I wanted to be able to count all the manta rays, I wanted to see the pattern of colors on the sharks, I wanted to make eye contact. All of that was swirling in my head, while at the same time, I was thinking….. I’m in a giant fish tank with sharks, turtles, schools of fish and my brother, Toby and my niece, JoAnn and nephew, Jaime.
The moments, the minutes, the breaths, it was amazing ! ! !
The grace and speed of the fish was calming and comforting. They are not in a hurry. The continuous movement in the water, the invisible highways traversed time and time again by these amazing creatures, I was 5 years old in my head and heart. I was fascinated, curious, happy, excited, it was wonderful ! !
In those 35 minutes in the water I thought of many things:
The joy of sharing the experience with my family, the memory forever in my heart and mind.
I was thankful to be healthy so I could participate in the swim.
The self-talk to calm myself; the idea of truly being present in the moment.
The tiny fear that I wouldn’t be able to keep my head down in the water for 30 plus minutes, the regulator was not familiar.
Certainly the snuba tank worked like it was supposed to, at the same time everything about swimming with a regulator and a wet suit is not familiar.
At about minute 20, the dryness in my throat was akin to finest grade of sandpaper. I could feel my breaths physically moving in and out of my body, scrapping the back of my throat.
I was thirsty, desert thirsty, 20 gulps of crisp cold water thirsty.
I almost popped my head out of the water, I didn’t want to be the only one. I endured and made it all the way.
Each pass of whale sharks, I could hear tiny cheer in my head. I was excited like a child. A few times I could’ve reached out and touched one of the sharks, they were so close.
The shark’s grace was huge, compelling and mysterious.
The sharks were familiar with swimmers and divers, there are 4 or 5 groups that swim or dive everyday.
The sharks almost welcoming. I never felt like an intruder.
At about minute 25, I was cold. I knew the swim was about to end, I could see the ladder to the platform in the distance, I was ready to be out of the water.
I was never scared.
I love love love being in the water with the fish.
The dive masters were amazing.
I would certainly swim with the sharks again.
I was ready for a cold cold beer.
Cheers to Joann, Tobias and Jaime, I love you ! !