Swim with Whale Sharks... at the Aquarium?

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.

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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?

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Good questions- I'm a diver who doesn't get nearly enogh opportunity to go diving in the snowy wasteland that is Edmonton and having something like that here would be fantastic. Although actually the west edmonton mall has a huge waterpark where there used to be diving but not allowed anymore. But maybe whale sharks should be kept out of the equation- confine it to less rare animals maybe?

I've never visited the Georgia Aquarium, but a quick look at the web site indicates it's a legitimate 501(c)3 nonprofit. I'll certainly endorse the suggestion that there should be controls and objective studies about whether this particular activity could be harmful to the animals. But any nonprofit is faced with financial challenges and I'm willing to cut them some slack on this one in the absence of evidence that what they plan is bad for the sharks.

The have a FAQ page were they say you can't touch them.

It seems a little risky for the animals (2 30-minute dives with up to 6 people in each every day), but I suppose they are trying to minimize the introduced pathogens buy requiring participants to use provided equipment.

My immediate reaction is to be against it, for the same reasons that I don't like "stingray touch-tanks" and "get up close and personal with the bears" exhibits. It's essentially an easy way to get a cheap thrill by "interacting" in a meaningless way with a "wild" animal.

I find the interest in observing animals to be in their "animalness," not in turning them into risk-free touch toys.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I agree that it's not in the animal's best interest to be in this situation, but not everyone is indoctrinated since birth with awe for the natural world, or can travel to these places and do these kinds of things. Things like zoos, animal encounters and even cheesy overpromotion of animals like Flocke and Knut serve the purpose of providing contact with a world that many people might otherwise not know or NEVER experience. The more people experience encounters like these with species that aren't part of their daily life the more they realize the connection between themselves and the rest of the world, and will have that wee bit more consideration for the environment. Maybe the shark-swim's not something kids can do but I assume that an audience can see the people interacting with the whale shark and at least enjoy the experience from afar.

And this isn't exactly a dancing bear on a chain in the circus, or that godawful tiger splash park. It's not the ideal situation for the animal, granted, but there are also regulations in place to protect it from pathogens and being overly stressed by too much exposure. I'm sure that if the animal begins to show signs of discomfort or illness from the contact the aquarium would shut the program down.

I'm a strong opponent of any wildlife or marine mammals being captive. The only reason they are captive is because of the greed of people, whether it be for money or for their own selfish purposes to interact in some way with the species.

All kinds of things can go wrong here. And how is this fair to the whale shark? The only folks gaining from this are the zoo people who make money off of this.

Humans are a selfish species. Perhaps the tables ought to be turned and we become captive so the wildlife can observe us like we do to them. The best way for people to learn is in the animals' natural habitat .. at a safe and respectful distance - or not at all.

It amazes me how people simply do not see how their actions have such an impact on the world around them. This planet belongs to all species, not just the humans.

...people interacting with the whale shark

Well ... for a sufficiently flexible definition of "interacting."

I'm not arguing against zoos or against the idea of folks being able to have some experience of animals that they will never see in the wild. I just don't think that whale shark petting zoos accomplish anything useful other than to make money for the promoters.

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I was once talked by my wife (now ex-wife) into paying for 10 minutes in a shallow pool with dolphins. A sort of dolphin petting zoo - except that we were not allowed to close to them. The dolphin carers were extremely nervous we would scare the animals, hurt them etc. It was run and felt like a rushed photo-op with a president. The same amount of money would pay for a hour with a beautiful babe or a week-long hungover.

By milkshake (not verified) on 12 Feb 2008 #permalink

I don't agree that zoos [in general] are a result of human greed. There are many lovely, well designed (with the animal in mind) zoos that try their best at educating people. How else will we learn to appreciate them and protect nature and animals?

I think this new program sounds like, and looks like, a money grab. It plays on the human quality of curiosity, and the need for most people to "connect" in some way with animals and nature. If they wanted to do it for educational purposes, they wouldn't charge money but have a sign up list and do it once a month.

You would think that a zoo or natural museum, would be enough for most people to make that connection, coupled with all the field guides, information on the internet, or just a walk in your local park, might provide. Heck some of us even have pets to make that connection. ;-)

It does NOT sound like this has the animals in mind. I would vote "no" if I had the chance. It's just irresponsible in my opinion.


Humans are a selfish species

ALL species are selfish. It's in every species' self-interest to survive and reproduce. That isn't changing any time soon. The BEST any species in competition with humans can hope for is that humanity reaches a point where it experiences the realization that other species must exist as well and begin to go about enacting protective measures. You also can't force people to believe that or reach that epiphany, especially if it compromises their own interests.

I prefer NOT to experience the wonder and magic of most species in their natural habitat because A. I can't afford to travel and B. I like my personal safety. I would not like to get into the tank with the whale shark myself but I would definitely like to see one in my lifetime.

Having been to the GA I dreamed of diving in to the Ocean Voyager exhibit but I wouldn't actually do that. It seems weird and potentially bad all around for me and the fish. Not so much hazardous for me but I'd rather not distress an animal that may not exactly have a chance to swim away to the depths if it wants to be left alone. I'll settle for sitting in the viewing gallery and dreaming of having gills.

I have no argument with zoos/aquariums. I have walked people through them (friends) who wouldn't have ordinarily thought of going and they come out with a better idea of what actually goes on in the world, under the sea.

So after some more consideration, I think I can succinctly sum up my sentiments here, which some of you have touched on in your comments as well:

Capturing a rare, wild whale shark and putting it on display for educational purposes that will inspire and inform research and conservation efforts - acceptable

Capturing a rare, wild whale shark and putting it on display to make $1,500-$3,000k a day, even if that money goes to conservation - unacceptable

I realize this exhibit does both, but that doesn't make the latter OK.

As an employee at the Vancouver Aquarium I am extremely interested in what the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) has to say about such an encounter. Though, I have just searched the AZA website and it seems that the Georgia Aquarium is not a member...

As an employee of the Vancouver Aquarium, I am beginning to learn a lot more about the animals there, and those in the wild. I will firstly say however, I am no expert, I do not even have a BSc, so this is a matter of my own opinion, please do not hold anything I say against the institution where I work. With that disclaimer in mind, I will say what I have noticed:

We have programs everyday where we have SCUBA divers enter certain habitats. These two habitats are the 1)Georgia Straight exhibit and 2)the Black Tip Reef shark exhibit.

The only divers that enter the water are ones trained rigorously, and all the animals are watched closely by aquarists and other staff alike. Homie bear: you mentioned that perhaps such encounters should be left to less rare animals only. I can tell you that it doesn't matter if the animal is less rare. Stress happens.

In our Straight of Georgia exhibit we have Halibut, White Sturgeon, Ling Cod, Rockfish, various sea stars, sea anenomes, sea cucumbers, and even Giant Pacific Octopus. Pretty regular kind of animals, ones that don't face the same delicate concerns as whale sharks. Despite the fact that it is aquarium trained staff, the animals in the exhibit, particularly the Halibut began to show signs of stress despite the fact that it was only ONE ten to fifteen minute dive per day. The activities of the divers, and the areas to which they are allowed to travel were immediately tightened once these animals showed any signs of stress, and since then, they have not displayed similar signs.

But my point is this - it was halibut. Only one dive per day, for 10-15 minutes, by trained staff.

The fact that this aquarium is proposing two 30 minute dives for up to 6 people greatly concerns me. If our halibut got stressed out, there's no saying what animals in their habitat will begin to show stress, and HOW they will show stress. THAT I think, is the biggest question. What they are proposing I think could be very dangerous. Not only for people, but for the animals that this plan involves.

That being said, animal encounters are NOT a terrible idea. However, those encounters I believe should NEVER involve people directly entering an animal's habitat. i.e: the water. At the Vancouver Aquarium we offer Beluga, Sea Lion, and Sea Otter encounters. These experiences make a huge difference in many people's lives - to the positive benefit of our environment and these animals. Such encounters give people the chance to make a connection with, and learn more about these animals. This newfound connection, I have seen time and time again leads to an increased wonder, appreciation for, and most importantly a desire to HELP these animals in any way, including a greatly increased concern for the environment.

However, with these encounters, pretty much the closest interaction you have with the animal is to feed them from over a barrier, except in the case of the belugas, you can stand right in front of them and feed them, however, interaction is still closely monitored, and one NEVER enters the water with the animals. (Well, not never per say, every once and awhile divers will enter the water to clean the habitat, but not for animal interaction or encounters).

Also, by working at such a distinguished institution as I do allows me to see the importance of having such places for people to make these connections with the animals and see for themselves the absolute wonder that is our natural world. However, the safety and health of our animals is always of the utmost importance, as it should be. I seriously question the motives and care of some of the staff at that aquarium (I say some, as there are very likely people who work there that have as many misgivings as we do, or even more), as I know that it is ABSOLUTELY NOT necessary to put people in the water with those animals to achieve the exact same results.

I just really, really hope the result of their program isn't a news story of injury or death - be it of animal or human nature.

I think it's a great idea.

Animal Rights Groups" are the villain in my book.

Their notions of "what an animal wants" "what an animal needs" "the best welfare of the animal" are often just anthropomorphizing to suite their own biases rooted in religion which teaches us mankind and "wild things" do not belong together.

If not harassed (as in assaulted, physically harmed) almost every "wild" animal ends up living as close to us as possible, even if it prefers to remain out of site as many of them do, provided we haven't utterly destroyed every bit of their habitat requirements.

And if we'd stop pretending the needs and desires of animals are "different from our own" we'd realize it seems like they choose it over being away in the wild.

All too often so called "wild" animals readily make a home where we live. THEY DON'T HAVE A PROBLEM WITH US - IT'S OUR FEAR AND PANIC THAT MAKES US HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THEM.

But because we're superior we blame the animal, and it's "wildness."

What makes them fear us, is our predilection for killing them based on our mindless fear of them, or idolization of them as some sort of spiritual representation of our beliefs.

I bet the whale shark will do just fine. What I find mind-numbingly absurd is so many think the giant fish, and it is a fish, will make a distinction between humans thrashing about in the water, and the multitude of other swimming things. Why would it care? As long as the swimmers don't touch it or pester it. I imagine it would ignore them and continue eating.

They should monitor the whale shark for any signs of stress with remote sensors. If the initial alarm the will probably detect does not start to go down over time, then it should stop. If the sensors show a return to calm, then obviously the shark is not bothered.

HOWEVER, most every animal is able to get quite comfortable with human presence.

It's the mindless ideology of the American wildlife experts who have strange notions that "wild animals" don't belong in our world, as if there is any part of this world that is NOT ours, as if our world is NOT a product of nature.

Even worse it's a refusal to recognize reality. Any quick visit to google earth should show even the most rabid activist that there are NO WILD PLACES LEFT.

The animals in the world if they are to survive must be allowed to learn to live with us, and we must let go of our notions of being "special and different."

What is particularly ironic is so much of this idiocy that seeks to force a separateness between man and animals is rooted in religion, not science.

What science there is often develops in order to PROVE this pre-conceived false notion and completely overlooks evidence to the contrary or discounts it.

It's also a very American thing. I cannot tell you how many times I've been shocked at the completely different take an American scientist and a scientist from Europe or Asia will have on the concept of "wildness."

All too often our American view is rooted in mystical, in a sense of "proper place" and "rightness." Wild animals belong in the wild is my favorite idiot saying. Such nonsense should never be spoken by any true nature lover.

It's absolutism condemns a good 50% of animals to extinction in the next century, and this is an outrage because it's not based on science but fantasy notions. What is wild anyway. It's not an absolute standard, and shouldn't be used as such, but it is, and the animals pay for our stupidity.

Foreign scientists will often describe animal behavior in human terms. Everything we see an animal do, you can find us doing, albeit we rationalize it and make it seem like our behaviors are a product of thought rather than something we do because we are animals - like sex.

What's most absurd about this discussion is the notion that an animal's happiness is categorically different from our own, and we canNOT know it except for the fact that wild animals are happiest away from us what stupidity..

In truth what probably makes that whale shark extremely happy is plentiful food, mating partners and social needs being met, security - the exact same damn things that make humans happy.

If those things are provided in the presence of human beings, it won't care, for it will be happy.

The notion that a whale shark or any wild animal "needs the FREEDOM to room" is anthropormorphizing to the insane extreme.

Animals roam to find safety, food, mating partners.

They NEVER roam to seek the feeling of freedom. Freedom is a human concept wildlife experts use as a transparent excuse to build a wall between animals and humans.

The whale shark is a fish, not a primate, not a dog, not a cat. It's as smart as a fish is supposed to be.

Given that, any nonsense talking about "upsetting the animal" is just transparent anthropomorphizing and in the end will only ensure whale sharks go extinct, because people are walled off from the types of experiences that human animals must have in order to learn to value a creature and ensure it gets room on this world to live whether it be in a giant tank or in the ocean.

Nature and man's world are not separate.

They are one now.

There is not a single place on this planet that is not touched by man.

It's time to realize this, and realize also the best way to ensure animals survive is to ensure they can deal with us and we can deal with them, and the first step is to completely obliterate the word "wild" from speech as a term to describe animals.

In doing so we will deprive the wall builders of their bricks.

And this is not as outrageous as it seems. In India animals live in man's world pretty freely, and both humans and animals are doing extremely well

THE ONLY EXCEPTIONS are the animals that have been declared 'wild." Those are the ones on the brink of extinction.