Aquarium's swim with whale shark programme will endanger the animals

Whale sharks turned into carnival ride
Georgia Aquarium endangering its animals with new program
Lori Marino, Randy Malamud and Ron Broglio, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 14 Feb 08;

The aquarium has produced no credible evidence supporting the claim that visits to their whale shark exhibit (or any other exhibit, for that matter) translate into better understanding of whale sharks (or any other species).

Recently, the Georgia Aquarium sponsored a contest whereby visitors won a chance to swim or dive with the whale sharks. In fact, NBC touted this exploit on "Today," showing the three winners diving in the tank with the whale sharks. Now the aquarium has announced an ongoing program to provide paying customers an opportunity to swim with these animals.

We are disturbed that, after the deaths last year of two whale sharks in its charge, Ralph and Norton, the Georgia Aquarium has so little concern for the welfare of the remaining animals. A careful professional stance would have been for the Georgia Aquarium to minimize all possible negative impacts on the remaining sharks in order to maximize their chances of survival, which, we already know from Asian aquariums, are not good in captivity.

Instead, the Georgia Aquarium chose to promote a highly commercial circus atmosphere and make the animals into an amusement park ride. How could anyone concerned about the welfare of these animals support the risks of contamination and stress associated with having people (who may carry diseases and germs) invade these animals' delicate environment? While divers in the Pacific occasionally swim alongside whale sharks, entering the enclosed space of captive animals has very different implications and consequences for the animals, who have no escape.

We wonder if anyone at the aquarium has considered the psychological effects of this intrusion into the whale sharks' already compromised personal space.

On its Web site the aquarium presents 25 frequently asked questions about the dive program. We would add one more: How do you think the animals feel about the paying guests who pop into their water every afternoon?

The aquarium markets this contest as a way to educate the public and preserve whale sharks. The sincerity of this claim is belied by the blatant exploitation of these animals at a price of $190 to $290 a swim or dive for nonmembers.

The aquarium has produced no credible evidence supporting the claim that visits to their whale shark exhibit (or any other exhibit, for that matter) translate into better understanding of whale sharks (or any other species). Also, there is no evidence that swimming with captive animals (such as fish and mammals) increases understanding and appreciation for them. Even if there were such evidence, would it be a risk worth taking?

Whale sharks live in deep water, swim for hundreds of miles to feed and mate, and do not typically interact with people. It seems to us that the truly important conservation message that people need to learn is how to value these animals without needing to commodify them.

P.T. Barnum once said, "Clowns and elephants are the pegs on which the circus is hung." Were he alive today and in Atlanta, he might add "30-foot sharks" to his equation.

— Lori Marino is a senior lecturer at Emory University's Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology program. Randy Malamud is professor and associate chair of Modern Literature, Ecocriticism and Cultural Studies at Georgia State University. Ron Broglio is an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech.

Dives with the sharks will inspire
Dave Santucci, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 15 Feb 08;

When I was 5 years old, my parents brought me to the New England Aquarium. I was wowed by the amazing animals, and there was one experience on that trip I will never forget. One of the volunteers picked up a horseshoe crab and handed it to me to hold. Seeing these animals on TV is one thing, meeting them face to face through glass is inspiring, but an engaging experience with an animal can change someone's life.

More than 25 years later, I still look back at that experience as having a major influence on the educational and environmental path my life has taken. At Emory University, I majored in environmental studies. After graduating, I worked for CNN as a producer covering environmental stories, and now I work as the communications director for the Georgia Aquarium.

Thursday's opinion article "Whale sharks turned into carnival ride" (@issue) claimed there was no value to the Georgia Aquarium's new program to allow people to swim or dive with the whale sharks. I take personal issue with that because, aside from my story, I work alongside hundreds of people with similar stories and see thousands of people come to the aquarium every day who walk away with a greater appreciation for aquatic animals.

The staff and volunteers who work at the Georgia Aquarium care deeply for the animals here, and we would never do anything that we felt would put the animals in jeopardy. Every day, we put divers into what the Guinness Book of World Records calls the world's largest exhibit, Ocean Voyager. The animals are accustomed to divers being present and are not stressed by their presence. I know this because at every opportunity, I volunteer to dive in the exhibit and clean the windows for our guests.

When I look through the windows from underwater, there are children on the other side with an excitement to learn things that are rarely seen in a classroom, and children who are inspired by their experience to become marine biologists and make a positive difference for the animals and all of us in this world. And when I leave the water, I feel motivated to go out and spread the word about the amazing aquatic world. The aquarium wants nothing more than to share that experience with everyone and to create an army of ambassadors for aquatic environments.

There is an elitist view that these animals should only be observed in the oceans, but very few of us could afford the thousands of dollars and weeks of time it would take to get a glimpse of the elusive whale shark. However, many of us can afford the $171 price for aquarium members to swim with whale sharks.

And if just holding a horseshoe crab shaped my life into caring deeply about the environment and the aquatic world, imagine what this experience will do for thousands of people in the years ahead.

Ga. Aquarium helps spur research into little-known whale shark
The Associated Press, Access North 16 Feb 08;

ATLANTA (AP) In captivity, a 25-foot whale shark glides gracefully above a throng of enthralled tourists who hurriedly snap pictures from inside a clear tunnel at the Georgia Aquarium's giant six-million-gallon Ocean Voyager tank.

In the wild, whale sharks live much more hidden lives. Little is known about how much they eat, where they swim and where they give birth.

But since the Atlanta attraction opened in 2005, more than 5 million guests have helped generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for new research into whale sharks.

The research has new details about their nutrition, roaming habits and numbers.

The aquarium has invested in research projects on the whale shark in Mexico and Taiwan. Satellite tags on the Mexico whale sharks have helped track them from the Yucatan Peninsula across the Gulf of Mexico, the Straits of Florida and the Caribbean.

Chief science officer Bruce Carlson said the research helps the aquarium learn more and allows for better care of the whale sharks.

Carlson declined to say exactly how much the aquarium has spent on whale shark research but said it was in the ``hundreds of thousands of dollars.''

He and other researchers hope other studies answer more questions about whale sharks' lives: Where do they travel and how much do they eat? The mating behavior of the animals has never been observed, nor do researchers know where the whale sharks give birth.

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