Georgia is the only aquarium in the Western Hemisphere to have whale sharks — four of them. (Georgia Aquarium)
Oceans and rivers are home to some of the world’s most amazing animals. But for air-breathing mammals like us, these underwater creatures can remain elusive — unless you know where to look.
Aquariums and aquatic centers across the country offer programs that let you get up close and personal with myriad marine life. Here are three places to do a deep dive into this fascinating subject.
This massive aquarium in downtown Atlanta doesn’t just let you swim with the fishes. You get to swim with the biggest fish in the world.
The Georgia Aquarium — the largest in the U.S. — boasts gigantic whale sharks among its denizens. These spotted fish, which are sharks, not whales, can measure longer than 30 feet and rank as the biggest nonmammal vertebrates on the planet.
Georgia is the only aquarium in the Western Hemisphere to have whale sharks — four of them. Their tank is the second largest by water volume in the world, holding 6.3 million gallons and spanning nearly 100 yards.
“It’s about the size of a football field,” says Devin Waddell, dive immersion program manager. “It’s just spectacular.”
Visitors can get in the tank and swim with gigantic whale sharks — the biggest fish in the world — at the Georgia Aquarium. (Georgia Aquarium)
Opportunities to get in the tank are offered to both certified scuba divers and the rest of us, who can float on the surface of the water as these amazing creatures swim below. Don’t worry about them wanting to take a bite out of you; these gentle giants mainly eat tiny plankton. No touching is allowed — at least not contact initiated by humans. People sometimes get brushed as a whale shark swims by. The tank is shared by some 5,000 other animals, including manta rays.
The 2.5-hour program that involves 30 minutes in the water with a guided swim costs $233.95 for nonmembers.
Downtown Aquarium Denver
At this Colorado capital attraction, you can get a good look at a range of animals whose lives are intimately connected to water. Some of them get a good look at you, too, like the giant Pacific octopus named Moose who demonstrates her dexterity by opening a jar. Climb a ladder to the tank opening and Moose will reach out to touch you.
For a little extra money, visitors to the Downtown Aquarium Denver can touch the giant Pacific octopus named Moose. (Lori Boatwright)
The prize for the cutest aquatic critter on our list goes to the aquarium’s North American river otters, which were all orphaned, rescued and raised by humans. Guests sit in a room as the otters enter and show off some of their trained behavior, such as touching a target on the end of a stick held by audience members. The otters participate voluntarily; they’re trained to touch their nose to a certain shape on the floor if they want to leave.
“They come out on their own, and they have the choice on how long the session lasts and when it will be over,” says dive program manager Wendie Murray.
The aquarium also offers a shark cage experience ($100), where you can share the underwater environment with five varieties of sharks, among other marine life, from the safety of a clear acrylic cage as you breathe through an air line to the surface.
Denver's Downtown Aquarium offers a shark cage experience that lets you share the underwater environment with sharks from the safety of a clear acrylic cage. (Brett Seymour)
You can also meet a mythical creature: the aquarium has daily mermaid shows and offers a chance to snorkel with them for an extra fee. It may sound a bit silly, but the show has a conservation message and to children, it’s like meeting a superhero, says Murray.
“It’s one of the most magical things that happens here,” she says.
Dolphin Research Center
At this research center in the middle of the Florida Keys, you can do more than simply observe or get in the water with these highly intelligent creatures. Here, you have the chance to get a glimpse into their minds.
Founded in 1984, the center on Grassy Key is home to bottlenose dolphins that were born within its waters or were rescued and deemed by the government to be unable to be released back into the wild. It carries out research on dolphin cognition that has resulted in a long list of publications in scientific journals.
The Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys is an ideal spot to learn more about these highly intelligent creatures. (Kaitlin Prince / Dolphin Research Center)
The dolphins are taught to participate in activities designed to reveal better insight into the way they think and act. They might look at two boards with different quantities of dots, for example, and identify which one has the lowest number.
“To the animals, it’s not research; it’s a game. They have to want to play the game,” says Emily Guarino, director of research training and data collection. “Once we’ve tested and published that study, now we still have a bunch of dolphins that know how to play that research game, and it’s fun for them.”
Many of these games have been incorporated into the center’s public offerings. If you sign up for the Researcher Experience ($475) or Dolphin Explorer program ($75), you might do things like hide an object in one of several containers and ask the dolphin to find it.
Other programs let you get in the water to interact with the dolphins or experience what it’s like to communicate with a dolphin that learned to respond to hand signals. Different dolphins like to do different kinds of activities, and Guarino says their participation is always voluntary.
“They have a choice. We honor that choice,” she says. “They can choose to participate and play or they can choose to swim away.”
The research center offers a slew of programs ranging from a five-minute meet and greet for $30 to a Trainer for the Day ($695), which includes working alongside the trainers and creating a painted T-shirt with a dolphin.
Visitors at the Dolphin Research Center can work with a dolphin to paint a T-shirt on a board for an extra $65. (Dolphin Research Center)
Closer to home, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium has no shortage of opportunities to take your visit up a notch with “Extraordinary Experiences,” like behind-the-scenes tours, trainer-for-a-day programs and encounters with belugas, penguins and otters.