A novel approach to connecting people and animals while generating new revenue or exploitation and poor judgment from those who should know better?
The Georgia Aquarium announced this morning a new program that allows regular Joe Public to swim with their famed whale sharks, among other critters, in their largest tank. For the low price of $199 a swim or $290 for a SCUBA dive (actually quite a deal compared with traveling to the Philippines or one of the other exotic locales where you might get a chance to dive with them), you get a guaranteed swim with these biggest of all fishes. It looks like the public has responded favorably, given that it’s already booked through July, less than two hours after the email went out.
New to the Georgia Aquarium, guests now have the opportunity to swim with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, in the world’s largest aquarium.
Swim or SCUBA dive with whale sharks, zebra sharks, sawfish, leopard whiprays and bowmouth guitarfish (just to name a few) in the 6.3 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit. No experience is necessary for the swim program, but certification is required to SCUBA dive.
Registration opens today to the public to swim or dive beginning on July 1, and reservations can be made online. Reserve your space to swim or dive today!
This raises all sorts of concerns that I would love to see the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) response to. First and foremost, what precautions are being taken to ensure these rare animals’ welfare? A dozen strangers jumping into a tank each day must introduce foreign bacteria that we have to imagine might not make their way into the tank otherwise. Are visitors allowed to touch the animals and, if so, have their been any studies to determine how much physical human contact a whale shark can endure before its skin (placoid scales) becomes irritated (update: looks like the answer is no touching)? Let’s not forget the Georgia Aquarium lost a whale shark unexpectedly just last year. So little is known about these animals, is this an unnecessary risk? Why haven’t other aquariums attempted this with critters like dolphins, about which more is known?
Equally important, does this contribute to the mission of the Georgia Aquarium and zoos and aquariums in general? Personally we are big proponents of the unique educational opportunities these organizations provide, the awareness they build, the money they raise (mostly through donations), and the research and conservation they fund. However, beyond a few extra bucks, does swimming with whale sharks do any of the above? I worry that this type of exhibit provides legitimate fodder for the animal rights groups that still believe zoos and aquariums are inhumane, circus-like attractions. Have we just taken one of the earth’s rarest, most spectacular animals, and turned it into an amusement park ride?
The Georgia Aquarium website does not address any of these concerns (update: a few are addressed here), which is surprising as the Aquarium anticipates controversy with anything involving their beloved cash-cows, known in the wild as whale sharks. What are your thoughts?