Swimming with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium

Is the tourist attraction again putting its star animal at risk?

Steve Mussman doesn't own a dive shop so much as he owns a museum of maritime artifacts. On the wall above his cash register is a large mermaid, which appears to have been taken from a ship's bow. A second mermaid, a smaller Mayan woodcarving, hangs from the ceiling. And almost everywhere you look there's a framed photo related to scuba diving.

Mussman opened Sea Lab, the first dive shop in Gwinnett County, 22 years ago even though he already had a day job as a social studies teacher at Parkview High School. Now that he's retired from teaching, he tends to the store full-time. He also organizes groups of 30 or more divers who regularly travel to exotic locales together.

"I just love it," Mussman says. "Underwater, it's a totally different world. It's serene, peaceful, quiet. You can dive down to the same reefs 20 times, and never know what you might see."

There's one place, however, where Mussman doesn't plan to dive: the whale shark tank at the Georgia Aquarium.

Late last month, the aquarium sent letters to area dive shops to promote a new program that allows scuba divers and swimmers into the tank that holds the facility's star attraction: four whale sharks obtained from Asia. For a fee of $290, up to six scuba divers have the opportunity each day to spend 30 minutes underwater with the whale sharks.

"I'm not anti-aquarium," Mussman says. "I understand aquariums and zoos are educational, and that they promote research and conservation. But this doesn't seem right. The whale sharks are beautiful animals and, to me, this cheapens it. They're taking their dignity away from them. They're turning the whale sharks into a pony ride."

The "Dive With Gentle Giants" program is the latest chapter in the ongoing controversies that have marked the aquarium's ambitions to become a home for the whale sharks, an animal so rare in captivity that the Georgia Aquarium is the only place in the Western Hemisphere that has them.

Critics note that the whale sharks, which are the world's largest fish, have a high mortality rate in captivity, and that tanks cannot simulate their habitat because they habitually dive to depths of 4,000 feet and swim hundreds of miles. The critics' discomfort changed to anger last year when two of the original whale sharks – Ralph and Norton – died after being exposed to a chemical used to clean their tanks.

The aquarium has since acquired two more whale sharks, and is now facing another round of criticism for its diving program.

Dave Santucci, the aquarium's communications director, says the program is perfectly safe for the whale sharks – aquarium workers made 5,000 dives last year for maintenance and cleaning without incident. "I'm one of those divers, and I'm passionate about it," he says. "You get such an inspiring connection with the animals, and we wanted to take that beyond the staff. The proceeds go to whale shark research."

But some scientists are concerned that the tourist dives introduce a new risk for the whale sharks.

Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in neuroscience and behavioral biology at Emory University, has extensively studied aquatic mammals such as porpoises. After the aquarium obtained its first two whale sharks, she began to research that animal. "They lost two whale sharks last year, and it's really quite shocking that they've come up with this," Marino says. "They're dealing with an animal that we really don't know how to take care of in captivity, and then adding a layer of risk."

Eric Hoffmayer, a marine biologist with the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Mississippi who studies whale sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, shares Marino's concerns about putting the public into the water at the aquarium. "There are several places you can go in the world and be around whale sharks," Hoffmayer says. "We see schools of 20 and 30 whale sharks, as large as 100 individuals, in the Gulf. Is there such a big draw to get into a tank with them?"

He studied the stress physiology of sharks for his doctorate, and worries about the stress the diving program will create. Even in the wild, whale sharks are generally "skittish" around humans.

"Being in captivity puts an animal under stress," Hoffmayer says. "To add another additional stress, it doesn't really make a lot of sense to me. The animal goes through a whole cascade of physiological responses to deal with stress. If they are chronically stressed, the body will start to shut down, especially the systems that deal with growth, reproduction, and the immune system."

Hoffmayer and Marino each note there is a big difference between divers interacting with the whale sharks in the wild, and doing it in captivity. "In the wild, they have the ability to leave if they don't want to be around people," Hoffmayer says.

He says he has mixed feelings about even having whale sharks at the aquarium. "It does good because it does increase awareness of sharks," Hoffmayer says. "But is the tank big enough for four whale sharks to do their daily routine? Most shark species typically like to swim and then glide as they rest. In a tank, they may never get that rest. We also know that whale sharks typically make routine deep dives in the wild, which cannot be done in the aquarium. We don't know a lot about whale sharks in general, so they're learning as they go."

Steve Mussman is a scuba diver, not a scientist, but he echoes something Hoffmayer and others contacted by CL said: What if there's a problem? "What happens if, a month from now, one of the whale sharks starts showing signs of disease?" Mussman asks. "How are they going to explain this? Why not avoid that possibility and stick to science? That's what's going to benefit whale sharks as a species."

He's trying to organize opposition to the aquarium's diving program from the international aquatic community. "I don't know what my chances are to convince them to reconsider this program," Mussman says. "But if I don't succeed, I'll feel better for having tried."