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June 27, 2008

Shark Bait!

Posted: 03:18 PM ET

I remember the moment I fell in love with marine animals. I was ten years old, visiting Sea World in San Diego with my family, when I saw two scuba divers swimming in a tank of dolphins. That’s all it took.

Waving to aquarium visitors through the glass at the Ocean Voyager exhibit.

Fast forward twelve years. A degree in marine biology and a few marine science internships later, I’m still that same 10 year-old redhead who gets giddy every time I see a scuba diver in an aquarium.

So imagine my excitement last week when I found out that I was going to scuba dive in the world’s largest aquarium with the world’s largest sharks.

Everyone jokes that they are going to throw their interns to the sharks, but the CNN Science and Technology producers weren’t kidding.

Turns out the Georgia Aquarium had offered me a once in a lifetime chance to swim with whale sharks, rays, and the thousands of other fish in their football field sized Ocean Voyager tank. It’s all part of their new Swim With Gentle Giants program that lets the public scuba dive with these majestic animals one half hour at a time.

I couldn’t pull on my wetsuit on fast enough. Before I climbed down the ladder into the 6.3 million gallon tank, people kept asking me if I was scared of what I was about to do.

Truth was, I was more nervous that I wasn’t going to remember how to scuba dive than to look blacktip reef sharks in the eye.

A summer of volunteering at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans taught me that most sharks are the not frightening animals as the movie Jaws would lead us to believe. No need to insert the movie’s theme song here…

Sharks have very slow metabolisms so they don’t need to eat often. Like baleen whales, whale sharks are filter feeders, meaning they would be more interested in plankton than me. I wasn’t even frightened of the other sharks in the tank. Thanks to a hardworking aquarium team, they are fed regularly enough to keep their stomachs happy and most of them don’t find the taste of humans appealing anyway.

One of the Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks swims gently by divers.

So there I was, swimming through schools of French grunts, kneeling next to cownose rays, and coming face to face with giant grouper. All the while, the white underbellies of the four juvenile whale sharks slid silently by above our heads. It was only after the hammerhead shark came within one foot of me that I remembered I was trespassing on their turf. But they didn’t seem to mind.

Millions of people visit the Georgia Aquarium each year, and, like me, this will the closest they will ever come to whale sharks in their lives. And that’s exactly what the aquarium wants.

These four whale sharks are ambassadors for their species. Gently swimming through their giant aquarium habitat everyday, they are not only educating the public on the beauty of their species but also the threats to their population. Like most shark species, whale shark populations in the wild are a fraction of their historic levels.

So the next time you get nervous about swimming in the ocean because you think sharks may be roaming in the deep blue water, remember they are treasures of nature not monsters of the deep.

And if you have trouble getting over your fear of sharks, memorize this fact I read in a GA Aquarium pamphlet after my dive: ‘According to a National Geographic article on shark conservation, New Yorkers bite more people each year than sharks do.’

Happy swimming everyone.

(Note to my producers: you can throw me to these sharks any day).

For more information on the Ocean Voyager exhibit and the Swim With Gentle Giants program, please visit Georgia Aquarium website at http://www.georgiaaquarium.org.

- Julia Griffin, CNN Science & Technology

Filed under: Animals • Oceans • Sharks


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Larian LeQuella   June 27th, 2008 3:22 pm ET

You are very lucky Julia. When I took my family to the Georgia Aquarium, the first question my daughter asked was if she could swim with the sharks herself. Sadly we had to settle for looking at them through the incredibly thick windows to the aquarium.

So, how do I get my 12 year old to take your place? 🙂


S Callahan   June 27th, 2008 5:36 pm ET

Julia, Your descriptive blog made it a nice read..i actually could feel your excitement in the dive...don't know if my nerves would have been as calm with the hammerhead so close though... Happy Diving 🙂


Wade   June 29th, 2008 3:57 am ET

Julia, your article reminded me how much love aquariums, perhaps not to the "depths" that you do. What a delightful piece. Thanks.


Nick O.   June 30th, 2008 12:01 am ET

Lucky!


Franko   June 30th, 2008 6:39 am ET

Squid, octopi, sharks – alien brains.
What are they thinking ? – Taste that human, or sallow whole ?

Dogs, dolphins, other pack animals, you get some warning.


Moe   June 30th, 2008 9:40 am ET

Franko... exactly what kind of warning does a dolphin give before attacking? The ol' Flipper chip? You're a tool, stop posting. period.

Julia, awesome chance and experience. If you want to swim with whalesharks more, go down to mexico. You can go on "adventure tours" where they take you out to do just that and it's for over an hour. Fantastic experience to say the least.


Gavin Way   June 30th, 2008 1:44 pm ET

Julia,
Great piece. I'm a 20 year-old diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore (NAIB). Your article reminds me exactly of many of the feelings I had when I started there a year and a half ago. I've always been enfatuated with the sea, and I really appreciate the ability to educate the public about the sea that the NAIB provides me. I just hope my efforts don't come too late in the struggle to save the world's oceans!


Larian LeQuella   June 30th, 2008 2:01 pm ET

Is it just me, or does it seem that Frank does not speak English, or human for that matter? 🙂


holly   June 30th, 2008 2:33 pm ET

great article. sharks get a bad rap. they are more endangered than people know,


Texrat   June 30th, 2008 2:36 pm ET

It's easy to cavalierly disregard sharks as not "terrors of the deep" in an aquarium surrounded by the well-fed variety... but to say we don't need to be nervous near them in the wild is absurd. Sharks don't care that we don't taste good– they bite us first anyway to find out. By then the damage (usually severe) is done.

And it really doesn't matter how rare attacks are– all it takes is the one. I'm not taking any chances. Shallow water is fine for me... especially as more and more sharks in the wild are driven closer toward shore to find rapidly-diminishing food.

So please don't give people this naive notion that "sharks are our friends". They are not. They are interesting creatures, but very lethal and our sentiments mean nothing to them. They will bite you regardless of how you feel about them.


Scott W   June 30th, 2008 4:16 pm ET

Wow, sounds like your internship is awesome! Let me know when they have an opening and i´ll hop in the tank with the sharks too. See you at school soon!


Theresa   June 30th, 2008 4:26 pm ET

Texrat,

Yes, it's taking a chance to dive with sharks. They are wild animals, not pets, and it would be foolish to say otherwise. Still, it's also taking a chance to drive a car, or ride an airplane, or keep a dog as a pet – all of these activities are much riskier than diving with sharks!

And not all sharks are alike – there are nearly 400 species, and only a handful are dangerous to humans. Even these almost never attack unless provoked.

There are precautions to take – free diving with great whites is just a bad idea, and spearfishing or swimming at dusk (when it's harder for the sharks to see what's food and what isn't) should also be avoided. But the risks, for me at least, are much less than the benefts of diving with these amazing animals. Sharks have been demonized in the media for decades – a little less fear and more understanding is the first step towards saving them from the threat of extinction they now face.


S. Root Pulliam   June 30th, 2008 11:09 pm ET

Julia- every time I read about your adventures, I am so excited for you and proud! Keep it up!


Dylan Pfeifer   July 2nd, 2008 2:58 am ET

It's not the frequency of their bite that is the problem, but the magnitude.


Franko   July 2nd, 2008 3:06 am ET

“Tillikum and two female whales held the trainer underwater until she drowned” – “Tillikum apparently killed a man who had snuck into a marine park to swim with the animal after the park had closed”

Sometimes the thrill gets killed.


Nancy B.Griffin   July 2nd, 2008 5:30 pm ET

What a treat to see my granddaughter on CNN.I wish I were young enough to start a new career. I was born too soon to be a part of the wonderful new world that is opening up to your generation. Looking forward to more adventures from my family tree "twigs"


Franko   July 10th, 2008 5:13 pm ET

Jonah could not be digested. No deodorant or showers makes for stomach upset. Even all the Frankincense and Mir hair ointment did not improve the taste. Thrown up due lack of hygiene.

Little girls, to offset the sugar and spice, need defensive measures.
Skunk perfume bubble bath, before each dive, a must ?


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