Scuba Diving at Georgia Aquarium
Downtown Atlanta brings to mind images of the Coca Cola Museum, towering skyscrapers, the Centennial Park fountain, and of course, the traffic – just to name a few. Scuba diving would seem widely misplaced in this landlocked metropolitan city. The closest salt water beach at Tybee Island is a 267-mile drive from the city. Yet, hidden amidst the concrete jungle of downtown Atlanta is a watery world waiting to be explored. These blue depths are found just inside the doors of the Georgia Aquarium.
When my husband approached me about scuba diving in Atlanta, I didn’t believe him. Scuba diving in Atlanta? Where? How? His boss, Seth, and Seth’s family are scuba certified and they were thrilled when they learned that Nick was getting scuba certified on our honeymoon. Fast forward a few years and a date had been set for a scuba diving excursion to, of all places, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
The “Journey with Gentle Giants” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You are guaranteed to be diving among whale sharks, manta rays, and many other diverse sea creatures. The number one requirement for diving at the aquarium is you must have a nationally recognized proof of Open Water Scuba certification.
We arrived at the Georgia Aquarium on a Sunday afternoon and, after checking in, our group of five was led to the deck of the Ocean Voyager exhibit tank. Aquarium staff members were rowing small inflatable rafts across the surface while scooping food into the water as the gigantic whale sharks followed in pursuit of their mid-afternoon snack. The sheer size of these mammals took my breathe away as we all stood speechless on the side of the tank. Reality started to settle in that, within the next 60 minutes, we would be lowering ourselves into that very pool. We didn’t mind the giants were getting fed prior to our entrance into their territory!
We watched a brief training video about what to expect and what rules to follow in the tank. Our dive instructor guided us through the timeline of the dive and explained how we would navigate our way through the tank by swimming over the tunnels and along the sides and told us to always be sure to stay low near the bottom to avoid getting in the “high traffic lane.” The high traffic lane meant the space where the whale sharks and manta rays zoom around the tank in circles and semi-circles. In open water diving, especially at coral reefs, the number one objective is to maintain buoyancy and hover above the coral so as not to destroy or damage it. However, in the Ocean Voyager tank, the number one goal is to avoid a head-on collision with a 40-foot whale shark.
Finally, we were all suited up in our wet suits, goggles, masks, fins, and Bouncy Compensator Devices, which are commonly referred to as BCDs in the scuba diving world. We awkwardly made our way down the metal ramp to the dock and, one by one, entered into the 6.3 million gallons of water. As we descended to the floor of the tank, manta rays the size of cars glided gracefully below us. Once everyone was settled and comfortable on the bottom of the tank, we began the 30-minute excursion of follow the dive leader. The water was cool, but not uncomfortable and visibility was near perfect. Nick and I were dive partners and brought up the back of the group. We floated over the 100-foot tunnel and waved at tourists standing beneath the glass. Nick was happy to strike a pose for tourists grabbing selfies with the scuba divers in the tank. Our dive instructor had shared with us that the aquarium visitors love interacting with scuba divers when they see them in the tank, and we definitely found that to be true every time we passed by a public viewing window.
This dive was nothing like what I had experienced scuba diving in the open water ocean dives where conditions can be less than ideal when waves and currents cause poor visibility or all the big fish are nowhere to be seen. Every two minutes or so, one of the whale sharks would pass by just overhead. When I was living in Australia, I had the opportunity to scuba dive off the Ningaloo Coast in western Australia. My dive instructor told me incredible stories about seeing whale sharks in those waters, but we only heard them in the distance during my few dives in those coastal waters. I don’t think any picture, video, or description can truly prepare you for experiencing the moment when the world’s largest fish species glides through the water just a few meters in front of you. It was a moment I will never forget.
Whether you’re in the water or on the other side of the glass, be sure to take a few extra moments to just be still and watch. From the sea turtle and starfish to the gentle giant whale sharks, these aquatic creatures are nothing short of amazing and are a reminder to us all to protect and treat our lands and oceans with respect.
--Article by Katherine Mahlberg
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