Sunday, 20 July 2008

Toronto Star Runs Stephen Weir Whale Shark Story: Posting of the Orginal Version of the Story

A whale (shark) of an experience
Toronto Star July 19, 2008

The Toronto Star published my whale shark story on July 19th. The three-page feature was the cover story on the Travel Section. I originally wrote a 1,300 word story for the Star. The assistant-editor Susan Pigg asked me to cut it back to 700 words. That shorter version appeared in the Star with only minor edits. You can see that story on the Star's website at:

What follows is the first version of the whale shark story.

A Whale (Shark) of a Tale and its all true
Dive Tourism in Land Locked Atlanta. Big Fish. Big Tank. Big Thrill

By Stephen Weir

The Georgia Aquarium dive master was a great salesman. He easily sold four scuba divers on the concept that the aquarium’s mammoth whale sharks are in fact gentle giants. So, no one flinched when a 3ft tall dorsal fin cut through the water within touching distance of their dangling flippers. But, after slipping into the lukewarm water all the divers’ eyes went wide; no one had talked about the man-sized black tip and hammerhead sharks that now lazily circled the scuba tourists.

The two lithe sharks completed their inspection of the divers and headed out towards the far end of the 6.3 million gallon tank, a football field away. As the sharks departed the divers suddenly found themselves in shadows. Call it an indoor eclipse, a 20 ft long whale shark was passing directly overhead, effectively blocking out the direct light of the halogen lamps suspended overtop of the aquarium’s Ocean Voyager tank.

Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium has just started allowing visitors to dive and snorkel with their four Gentle Giants. And even though only a handful of scuba tourists have jumped into the Ocean Voyager tank the thousands of fish who live inside are accustomed to sharing space with scuba diving staff who are constantly cleaning and maintaining the largest single aquarium habitat in the world.

Everything about the downtown attraction is BIG. The whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean and they are kept in the planet’s largest Aquarium. The building has several different salt and freshwater tanks filled with more than eight million gallons of water giving Atlanta the bragging rights for maintaining the largest collection of living aquatic animals on earth.

“We are the only aquarium in the Western Hemisphere that has whale sharks and we are the only one anywhere that allows you to swim or dive with them,” dive master David Adams told the four visitors in a one-hour pre-dive orientation.

“ Our whale sharks – two females and two males - are 16 to 22 ft in length and we are expecting them to grow,” Adams continued. “ We don’t know a lot about whale sharks, so we don’t really know how big they can get or how long they will live. Having them here is a great opportunity to research and learn.”

Each day the Aquarium is allowing six qualified divers, aged 12 and older, to dive in what they call the Swim With The Gentle Giant Experience. As well, once the divers have exited the pool six swimmers are daily permitted to snorkel for half an hour in the Whale Shark tank.

“ We have a 5 ft rule. Divers should never get more than 5 feet from your partner, and we ask that you don’t get within 5 feet of the fish,” continued Adams. “ But, the 5ft rule doesn’t count if the fish swims up to you and takes a look!”

The whale sharks are indeed curious. Once the divers have gotten into the water and congregated on the bottom of the pool, the four grey and white whale sharks slowly begin to cruise overtop of them, letting the divers’ bubbles play across their wide white bellies.

The Atlanta whale sharks are young and still growing. The largest, a female is 22 ft long and weighs more than an elephant. They are filter feeders, sucking up salt water to get at bits of frozen aquarium krill (processed plankton).

The whale shark head is thin and flat and its two small eyes are several feet apart! “They have the biggest damn blind spot in nature … from here to here (holding his hands 4ft apart), when they want to see you they have to turn their heads sideways and check you out with just one eye,” Adams told the divers prior to the start of their dive.

True to form, as the divers began their expedition, sitting on the bottom in a shallow area of the pool, the whale sharks lumbered by turning their bodies so that they always had one eye on the humans. The scuba visitors were posing for the Aquarium’s underwater Videographer and ended up with a souvenir of the shark’s eye-to-eye swim by (DVDs are sold apr├Ęs dive).

Guests aren’t permitted to swim around the pool willy-nilly. The underwater tour is lead by a pole-totting aquarium dive master. The pole is there to fend off any shark that might get too close to the paying customers. The divers swim in buddy teams and each pair is shepherded by a safety diver.

Boulders have been placed on the bottom of the tank to the ocean floor. For divers and fish, it is obvious that the seabed illusion has been created with concrete and paint, but for the dozen of spectators who stare up and madly wave from a Plexiglas tunnel that bisects the pool, and the hundreds who stand behind a wall of glass at the end of the tank, it looks like the real thing.

There are over 70 species of fish in the tank, and it is estimated that there are over 50,000 fish swimming freely with the divers. There are fish everywhere. There are cownose rays sitting on the bottom, nearby gnarly Australian woebegone sharks hide in crevices amongst the faux rocks. Silver Atlantic tarpons, pompano and humphead wrasses envelope the human visitors. Sharks of all shapes and sizes zoom around, over and between the divers. While one buddy team look at an Indian Ocean sawfish coming across the bottom of the tank, another tuck in their arms as a leopard shark swim between them.

The Georgia Aquarium supplies all the gear – tanks, regulators, fins full wetsuits, gloves and weight – they do this because they are worried about outside gear contaminating the water. Two whale sharks died last year poisoned by an insecticide used in cleaning the glass windows.

The rental of the gear, the pre and post dive lectures and the swim itself come at cost. Divers pay $290 per dive, swimmers $190 for swimmers. Even though the Georgia Aquarium is not advertising the dive programme, most weekends for the next six months are sold out (there are mid-weeks slots available).

The Aquarium is a non-for-profit institution. Monies earned from the dive program will be used for fish research and rehabilitation projects.

Whale Shark Sidebars

Sidebar #1

Getting in touch
Georgia Aquarium
225 Baker St
Atlanta, Georga
(404) 581-4000
Register for Swim With The Gentle Giant Experience at

Sidebar #2

Indoor Diving for Scuba Tourists
The Atlanta Aquarium is not the only place you can dive indoors. Other locations that open their doors (and pools) to scuba tourists include:

Epcot Centre – Disneyland, Orlando, Florida. The Seas with Nemo & Friends is a 6-million-gallon indoor aquarium with more than 65 species of marine life, including sharks. $150 per dive.
Bonne Terre Mine – Bonne Terre, Missouri. The Bonne Terre lead mine flooded in the sixties. Qualified divers are escorted to see mining artifacts, and spooky tunnels. $65.00 per Dive
The Florida Aquarium. Located in Tampa, Florida the large aquarium has a Dive With the Sharks Programme in Shark Bay. $150 per dive
Blue Water Aquarium. Chester UK. Dive in 10 year old aquarium and see one of Europe's largest collections of sharks, £199 per dive
Nemo 33, Brussels• World’s deepest indoor pool for scuba divers, 33 metres deep (hence the name Nemo 33). 20 euros per dive.
Siam Ocean World, Bangkok Thailand. This privately operated aquarium let divers to swim with the sharks. 5,300 Baht per dive.
Melbourne Aquarium, Melbourne, Australia. Certified and uncertified divers can swim inside this 2.2 million litre Oceanarium. The tank contains a lot of sharks,. $150 AU per dive.

Sidebar #3

Whale Shark Factoids
The Whale shark (Rhincodon ) is the planet’s largest fish.
It can grow to a length of 18m (60ft) or more and weigh up to 34 tonnes (5 times the weight of a big elephant).
Whale shark skin is both striped and spotted. No two sharks have the same colour pattern
In Asia, Whale Sharks are known as Tofu Sharks because of the taste and texture
The Whale Shark is often called the: basking shark, the Shalaam Waan (Thai), requin baleine and chagrin (French), pez dama (Spanish) and the tuko (Tagalog).
Whale shark are found in all tropical and warm oceans and are pelagic for most of their lives.
They are filter feeders feeding on plankton. They have capacious mouths which can be up to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) wide and can contain between 300 and 350 rows of tiny teeth.

Whale Shark Fact Sheet

Tail of the Tape. A few factoids about the Whale Shark

Fact Sheet

The Whale shark is the planet’s largest fish.
Whale sharks can grow to a length of 18m (60ft) or more and weigh up to 34 tonnes (5 times the weight of a big elephant).
Whale shark skin is both striped and spotted. No two sharks have the same colour pattern
The Whale Shark is the only member of its genus Rhincodon and its family, Rhincodontidae
In Asia, Whale Sharks are known as Tofu Sharks because of the taste and texture
The Whale Shark is often called the: basking shark, the Shalaam Waan (Thai), requin baleine and chagrin (French), pez dama (Spanish) and the tuko (Tagalog).
Whale shark are found in all tropical and warm oceans and are pelagic for most of their lives.

They are filter feeders. They have capacious mouthes which can be up to 1.5 metres (4.9 ft) wide and can contain between 300 and 350 rows of tiny teeth.
A Whale shark has five large pairs of gills. Two small eyes are located towards the front of the shark's wide, flat head method of clearing a build up of food particles in the gill

Friday, 18 July 2008

A close look at seaside and lakeshore garbage

The Make-Up of Seaside and Lakeshore Trash
By Stephen Weir
Writer Posts and Reader Responds

I don't usually post on this site articles of mine that Diver Magazine has posted on its website Diver's website gets an impressive numbers of daily visitors ( I get in the 10s they get in the 100s and 1,000s). However, one of the drawbacks of the Diver site is that there isn't a forum yet to show how readers have responded to the articles.

The following story was posted a few days ago (July 15) and almost immediately I received a thoughtful response that should get posted. So what follows is what was posted followed by a response from a reader.

The Washington-based Ocean Conservancy earlier this year released its annual report on trash in the ocean with new data from its 2007 International Coastal Cleanup Project. Their findings? Seashore trash is hurting the world!

Beach trash is clogging shorelines and killing birds, animals and fish.

According to the report “more than 378,000 volunteers participated in cleanups around every major body of water around the globe. Volunteers record the trash found on land and underwater allowing us a global snapshot of the problem.”

They estimate that trash in the ocean “kills more than one million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year through ingestion and entanglement. In the latest cleanup “81 birds, 63 fish, 49 invertebrates, 30 mammals 11 reptiles and one amphibian were found entangled in debris by volunteers. Some of the debris they were entangled or had ingested include plastic bags, fishing line, fishing nets, six-pack holders, string from a balloon or kite, glass bottles and cans.”

The top ten debris items collected? The hit list includes:

* Cigarettes/cigarette filters
* Food wrappers/containers
* Caps/lids
* Bags
* Plastic beverage bottles
* Cups/plates/forks/knives/spoons
* Glass beverage bottles
* Cigar tips
* Straws/stirrers
* Beverage cans

And the response that the article garnered ...

A comment was sent in about one of your articles on Divermag.
Article: No Butts About Seashore Trash
Article URL:


Your article was very informative but it lacked one thing: A solution to the problem. Many people are under the false assumption that as long as people go to the beach and clean up after themselves, there will be no more problem with litter. What they fail to realize is that only a very small portion of the seashore litter comes directly from trash left on the beach. Aside from direct dumping into the ocean, a great majority of trash that litters the world's beaches comes from inner-city litter that gets washed into the storm drains. For those who do not know the difference between storm drains and sewers, storm drains carry water from the streets directly into the rivers and oceans. It is not treated like sewer water and it does not mix with the sewers, so it does not pass through any treatment facility. Therefore, a plastic wrapper that is tossed onto the ground in St. Louis will eventually wind up in the Gulf of Mexico, choking wildlife. So please, think twice before tossing even the smallest piece of garbage out of your car widow, even if you live far away from the ocean.

Monday, 14 July 2008

News from the Maple Gazette - B&B of the summer in New Hampshire

Manchester’s famed Ash Street B and B is tankful guests are driving inn
By Stephen Weir
(from the summer edition of the Maple Gazette)

Aware of rising fuel costs, the owners of the historic Ash Street Inn have created a package for people taking a motor-vacation to their establishment this summer. The 123 year-old Manchester Bed and Breakfast Inn is offering a $20 refund per night to help guests fill that gas tank.

The Ash Street Inn is a three-story stain glassed filled Victorian home located minutes from Manchester’s cultural and sports attractions. This summer the award winning Bed and Breakfast Inn is offering three packages to lower the cost of a driving vacation.

Guests who spend two or more weeknights received a $20 refund per night. Their “Explore New England” package gives those guests who plan to take driving day trips a $20 a night rebate and for one of those day trips they will also pack a gourmet lunch in an insulated bag for a meal on the road (and guests get to keep the$40 bag). The third travel incentive? The Ash Street Inn is giving room discounts to guests who arrive in hybrid automobiles!

Built in 1885 the Victorian building has been a private residence, rooming house, hair salon, art studio and doctor’s offices. It is now the benchmark Bed and Breakfast Inn in Manchester. Many of the Inn’s original stained glass windows remain including several in a spectacular third-floor tower.

A look at the Inn’s guest book shows why the Inn enjoys a high retention rate for guests. “What do you get when you cross a five star hotel with Grandmother’s house? The Ash Street Inn, of course,“ wrote Doug, a vacationer from Georgia.

The experts agree. The Bed and Breakfast was voted as the Inn with the "Best Customer Service" by readers of the Arrington’s Inn Traveler magazine. As well the establishment was selected as the "Editor’s Pick" by the Yankee Magazine Travel Guide to New England.

Reservations can be made by calling 603-668-9908 or via e-mail to The Inn’s web site is at: