If you’ve been following the adventures of Angie Away for any length of time, you’ve probably guessed by now that I’m a bit of a shark fanatic, or finatic, as the team at the Discovery Channel calls it. (See: My 30th birthday in South Africa and My Love Affair with Sharks for proof.)
In fact I’ve been so enthralled with the 25th anniversary of Shark Week the past few nights, I haven’t had time to write this post. (Have you seen the footage of Colossus, a massive Great White in South Africa? Those jaws! Those teeth! That AIR! Now I’m disappointed in the measly 10-footers I saw when I was cage diving in Gansbaii. It may be time for a return expedition… but I digress…again… back to writing!)
When I got back from our family’s lake house on Sunday evening, I found a package on my desk – return address: Shark Week. Christmas came early for me this year, folks! I tore into the package and found a 25th anniversary Shark Week shirt, BITE ME sticker and yes, the world’s best foam novelty hat, pictured above.
It’s Tuesday morning now and I’m still wearing the shirt, and my sticky-fingered family has been warned that if they dare touch it, I will bite their leg off. I mean, errr, I’ll be really angry.
Thank you Shark Week & Discovery for helping me to watch Air Jaws Apocalypse in style!
Sunday night’s surprise Shark Week delivery wasn’t my only preparation for the most important week in the wide world of sharkdom, oh no. About a week ago, I found myself in Atlanta for a wedding and thought, as you do, “Why don’t I stick around after the nuptials, check off a huge item on my bucket list and really, really get pumped up for Shark Week?”
But seriously, you might be thinking, how can you get ready for Shark Week in Atlanta, of all places? Isn’t it landlocked? Miles and miles from the ocean?
Yes, Atlanta is a bit far from the ocean, but for the last 7 or so years, it’s been home to the Georgia Aquarium – the largest in the world with 10 million gallons of water and sea life that will absolutely take your breath away. The aquarium was a $250 million gift from Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus and runs as a non-profit, funding conservation efforts and research around the world.
The Georgia Aquarium is otherworldly and awe-inspiring – no matter what your level of finaticism.
Having lived and worked in PR & tourism in Atlanta for two years prior to moving to NYC, I was around for the grand opening of the aquarium, though my level of shark obsession hadn’t reached critical mass just yet. Still, I found the Georgia Aquarium’s beluga whales to be charming and its massive Ocean Voyager exhibit, with between 5,000-6,000 creatures, to be jaw-dropping. (I imagine if I ever do move back to Atlanta, I’ll be applying for a job there!)
The first stop on my return visit was a behind-the-scenes tour, where I explored the top of each habitat to see where the magic really happens. It was my first glimpse of the gentle giants that I’d soon be joining in the tank…
After taking in the magnitude behind the scenes, I wandered the exhibits below with a new appreciation for the scale of the tanks and the amount of dedication that goes into running an attraction of this size. For instance, all the creatures eat top grade, restaurant quality sushi. If something were to drop on the floor, it would get thrown out – there’s no 5-second rule here.
It’s fair to say that the creatures of the Georgia Aquarium eat far better than I do.
Aside from the actual mind-blowing whale shark encounter, one of my favorite parts of visiting the Georgia Aquarium was watching people from baby to grandpa stare up with wide eyes and big grins at the giant rays, the open-mouthed grouper, the playful otters and the leafy seahorses.
With 4,574 sq. ft. of viewing windows, a 100-foot-long underwater tunnel, 185 tons of acrylic windows and the second largest viewing window in the world at 23 ft. x 61 ft., Bernie Marcus has really outdone himself.
No other aquarium in the world has ever achieved the level of excellence that this exhibit has.
While the whale sharks tend to receive the most attention because they’re the biggest and most elusive of all the creatures at the Georgia Aquarium, the little guys and less famous fellas are just as cool, and it really did my heart good to see folks getting excited about every single fish that passed over.
You never know which of these kids could be the next Jacques Cousteau!
Passionate scuba divers travel around the world seeking a whale shark encounter in the wild, but the world’s largest fish isn’t always easy to find, despite an average length of 30+ feet. That’s just one of the benefits of signing up for the Journey with Gentle Giants at the Georgia Aquarium — if you don’t see a whale shark on this dive, get thee to an optometrist, stat!
I spent a few hours observing the Ocean Voyager tank from the dry side of the glass with all the other spectators before taking the plunge, taking mental notes of which sharks and rays were the most active as well as the dimensions of the tank. Not that I needed to be so prepared – the friendly, smart, fun staff gave us all the info in our pre-dive briefing.
Mostly, we needed to be extra cautious during ascent & descent, as the fish population wouldn’t get out of our way – we needed to stay out of theirs! No one wants to land on a 30-foot shark or even a 6-foot shark or 12-foot manta ray on the way down – that is not how you start a successful dive! So we kept an eye out all around just to make sure we didn’t accidentally take a ride…
There was some info I wish I would’ve had well in advance though. I found out about 5 minutes before wet-suiting up that Discovery had placed two gajillion dollar cameras in the tank to celebrate Shark Week and that we would soon be live streaming to the world… had I known, I could’ve told everyone to watch! I only had a split second to alert the Internet, and fortunately two of my best friends happened to be paying attention from their respective offices.
(Note: the ‘me’ in this conversation is Bethany in NYC; Lauren is based in Dallas)
In all my dives around the world, I’ve never had the ability to share in real time with my friends back home, so this was something very special to me!
The only problem… Lauren and Bethany could only capture screengrabs, so the quality leaves something to be desired. But really, what more could I ask for? My non-scuba best friends served as underwater photographers from hundreds of miles away as I swam with the largest fish in the sea in a landlocked city in the USA – technology is so awesome!
You can watch the live Shark Cam at the Georgia Aquarium here, just don’t blame me if you lose all productivity at work!
Ocean Voyager was designed with whale sharks in mind and the four who live here also share the space with trevally jacks, four manta rays (the only ones in a US aquarium – ever!), goliath grouper, sawfish and plenty of toothy sharks.
Nowhere else in the world are you guaranteed to see whale sharks on your dive – so those are pretty good odds, and well worth the $300+ price tag.
One of the most unique and interesting facts about the Ocean Voyager exhibit: there are species in there from the Pacific, the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans. There’s literally nowhere in the world but THIS tank where you can swim with such a peculiar diversity of marine life.
How cool is that? It’s like NYC for fish.
While the whale sharks are beautiful giants worth respecting, their status as filter feeders didn’t really give me the same adrenaline rush that Great Whites chomping at my face do. Luckily, to keep the adrenaline going, there were quite a few toothy, ominous-looking sharks in the tank, many more than I expected. So while I admired the whale sharks swirling slowly around, below and above us, I kept a shifty eye on the guys with the big pearly whites darting around curiously.
On top of all the Georgia Aquarium does for the ocean environment, and all that Shark Week does to make folks aware of the importance and magnificence of a healthy shark population, the way these two organizations have partnered to create a social media feeding frenzy also gets me pretty jazzed. Shark Week is a case study in engagement that I’ll no doubt be using as a shining example of “How To” in future consulting gigs.
At one point during the 30-minute dive, we knelt in the sand and just watched the fish traffic zoom above us. The manta rays and the whale sharks frolicked and flipped in our tank bubbles as they ascended and a couple of cheeky hogfish came close to check us out.
And if it wasn’t exciting enough that my best friends were capturing the adventure via the Shark Cam, at the last minute, one of my favorite former coworkers from Atlanta saw on Facebook that I was at the aquarium and raced down with her hubby & sweet baby to watch my dive. They made it just in time to see (and photograph!) me swim by the main window.
Again, this was so different than any other dive I’d ever been on! Usually on dives, it’s just you, your dive buddies and the fish. At Ocean Voyager, well, the divers were a part of the show. It was a bit of a celebrity moment, as all the people on the dry side of the window waved and the kids just stared with their mouths wide open as whale sharks and manta rays swam behind me. I wonder how many of those kids will look back on that moment as the exact time that they knew they wanted to learn to scuba?
I just floated and waved and smiled as best I could with a regulator in my mouth, looking anything but graceful, but feeling like a million bucks. It was one of the coolest dives I’ve ever done, and I did not expect that from a fish tank in Atlanta. I’d do it again in a heartbeat and next time, I’ll bring tons of non-diving friends to watch from the tunnel or the viewing windows.
What’s next for me in the shark realm? I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. You’d think all this scuba diving and cage diving and world-travelling in search of the biggest and baddest sharks would eventually satisfy me, but I confess, I still want more. For now, I’ll be joining the masses watching Shark Week, but rest assured, I’m on the lookout for the next big shark opportunity.
How about my own shark travel show? Would you watch a Shark Week episode hosted by Angie Away?
Special thanks to Discovery, Shark Week and the Georgia Aquarium for making this week one of the best of the year!