Any serious student of the James Bond films will tell you that humans should avoid all confined spaces that contain sharks. And here you are, about to plunge willingly into the tank, paying $225 for the privilege, staring down a waiver that describes SIGNIFICANT RISKS of SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. You are told these risks have more to do with drowning than being eaten alive. This is somehow comforting.
“If you’re lucky,” the instructor says, “you’ll get rubbed by a whale shark.”
Yes, it seems that the resident whale sharks—Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko, rescued from Taiwan before humans could eat them—have no interest in eating humans. Mostly they are curious, so even though you must not touch them, they may touch you.
The wet suit. The diving mask. The aluminum air tank strapped to your chest, with a black rubber hose running to your mouth. You bite down on the regulator and slip into the tank, cool saltwater filling your suit. Below you, tens of thousands of creatures ripple through the water. Schools of mullet and French grunt. Cownose rays and bowmouth guitarfish. Something with a chain saw for a head. Breathe in. The air tastes rubbery. Breathe out. Mercurial bubbles whoosh past your ears.
You and six other swimmers and two guides form a line on the surface of the tank, which is twenty to thirty feet deep and about the size of a football field. You move in a slow figure eight, faces down in the water. Breathe in. You have to remind yourself sometimes. That old Tracy Bonham song keeps playing in your head. Saw a shark today/Ate a man and then just swam away. A great hammerhead wheels about ten feet below you. A sand tiger shark scuttles along the floor. They are not hungry.
The whale shark rolls toward you and is lovely and hideous all at once, a floating Cadillac, strange flat head, grid of white spots like a field of stars, and you want to touch it, but you pin your hands at your sides and lie flat as it rushes beneath you, dorsal fin inches from your suit. The regulator chatters between your teeth and the saltwater burns your lips. Breathe out. georgiaaquarium.org —Thomas Lake