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: http://www.thestar.com/Travel/article/461491

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.

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