Whale Shark Feeding

So, this past Friday I started my day out with a SCUBA dive in the largest aquarium in the world. Yes, at about 0740 I once again found myself submerging for another volunteer dive in the Ocean Voyager (OV) tank at the Georgia Aquarium. The dive plan was a little different than the dives that I had done in OV to date, and in the end, I found myself staring straight into the wide open 4 ft. wide mouth of the largest fish in the world.

Usually, we start our dives by doing something like scrubbing the rock work to clean the algae off of it. Or maybe we’re doing some sort of maintenance to the vacuum and pump pipes of the tank. Basically, we usually spend the first 30 minutes of our dive performing a task that makes us suck through a lot of the air. Then, we clean all of the viewing windows and do a fish feed. Not today. Today we were doing it backwards and focusing solely on making sure the viewing windows were as clean as possible.

The great thing about this is that it meant that maybe I wouldn’t suck down all of my air before the fish feed. The 3 of us did a good job of cleaning the inside part of all the acrylic in the tank. We took our time, worked around a few of the goliath groupers and wobbegongs, and concentrated most of our efforts on the tunnel until we got to about 1000psi left in our tanks.

At that point the safety diver told us to that we were done cleaning and it was time to head out over to the ladder. I thought we were about to get out. Then I remembered the fish feed. I checked my air and I had about 900 psi left. Plenty of air for the fish feed! When I looked up from my air pressure gauge one of the other volunteer divers was holding out a squeeze bottle full of food and looking at me as if to say, “You want to feed the fish this morning?” Of course my answer was, “Heck yeah!”

In my limited experience as a volunteer diver I haven’t ever had enough air left for the fish feed part of the dive. This time, I was the one doing the feeding! I followed the diver with the chum-sickle of food over to the feeding area of the tank. I started squeezing food out of the bottle at about 10 ft. deep and was immediately swarmed by pork fish, blue tangs, king angelfish, batfish, goliath grouper, blacktip reef sharks, bluestriped grunts, golden trevally, and crevalle jacks. Of course, one of the whale sharks also started swimming around the area. I kept squeezing the bottle and feeding the fish while I descended down to about 25 ft. I started ascending when the food was almost gone and by the time I got back up to 10 ft. there was nothing left.

I looked around for the rest of the divers and turned to head back to the ladder and finish off the morning’s dive. When I looked up I realized that a whale shark was heading my direction. I believe it was Yushon, one of the male whale sharks, but I could be wrong. We’re used to being in the tank together and all of the whale sharks swim within inches of the divers on a regular basis. I figure that he was just going to swim on by this time. When he got to about 4 ft. away I realized otherwise. He opened his 4 ft. wide mouth and continued straight for me giving me a view I’ll never forget.

Luckily, I was taught enough about the whale shark so that I didn’t freak out. I knew that they were gentle, and that he couldn’t eat me and probably wouldn’t try to. Whale sharks are filter feeders and they filter anything that is too big for them to swallow whole out of their gills. They do have teeth, but only use them to help with the filtering process. Basically, I knew that I just wouldn’t fit, and that Yushon would eventually realize that I was out of food and I was too big for him to swallow.

I quickly put my hands up on Yushon’s nose and gently pushed. At 17 ft. long he’s so big that I think I ended up just pushing myself out of the way. He did seem to turn the other direction though. Both of us were fine, I patted him on the back as he swam by as if to say, “We’re all good. Good to see you and I’ll see you next time,” and we both swam away safely and happily.

Have any fun fish feeding stories? Leave a comment below!

TJ

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