Giant Sharks Help Wounded Warriors Heal

It’s humid and warm on top of the Ocean Voyager Built by The Home Depot exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, where eight Army veterans trade their fatigues for wetsuits to dive with whale sharks, manta rays, and other species. Haunted by ghosts of war, these men and women seek peace and healing with the help of these creatures.

After a briefing on what to expect when they submerge themselves, the warriors enter the water—and the famous Ocean Voyager. Certified dive masters accompany the group and communicate underwater with hand signals. Divers don’t touch the animals, although sometimes fish brush against them while rippling by.

Whale sharks are the largest fish on earth, with an average length of 40 feet and an average weight of 20 tons. They are named “whale” because of their size. Swimming with whale sharks might sound scary, but the Aquarium’s Veterans Immersion Program helps war veterans by providing a safe environment to mend their hearts and souls.

Georgia Aquarium has hosted more than 1,500 warriors, many with post-traumatic stress disorder, brain injuries, limb amputations, paraplegia, quadriplegia, and other challenges. The injuries are both seen and unseen. “Nobody escapes war unscathed. You can’t fathom the depths of these wounds,” observes Susan Oglesby, Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist, who manages the Aquarium’s Dive Immersion Program. Their darkest secrets sometimes include the wish to die.

Swimming in a 6.3 million-gallon habitat with thousands of fish offers soldiers a chance to let go of the outside world in the healing environment of water. The dive helps wounded warriors conquer their fears, have fun, and feel free and powerful among some of the ocean’s largest creatures.

Taming Free-Floating Fears

As one participant says, “Floating there facedown I was not intimated by these massive animals swimming by me. I had no control over them, yet I felt no fear.”

Such feedback is typical of what Oglesby hears from veterans. “There’s an overall theme of peace. Many say it’s the first time they’ve relaxed since they came home from war,” she explains.

“This experience gives soldiers a chance to put their lives together,” adds William Beaver, a Warrior Transition Battalion chaplain who accompanies groups to the aquarium. They leave inspired to adapt to life after the trauma of war. They can transform from soldiers back into civilians.

Today’s group of veterans glow after the dive. They light up talking to a videographer about the experience, proudly looking into the camera and saying things like, “Got to touch a manta ray. Awesome time, guys!” Another declares, “For the first time in a long time, I feel like a kid again.”

Aquariums Promote Health, Well-Being

Researchers have documented the healing power of fish. For instance, the journal Environment & Behavior reported that people who spend time watching aquariums and fish tanks see improvements in their physical and mental well-being. Benefits include a peaceful feeling, better mood, and lower blood pressure and heart rate.

Christine Young, an educator at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN, tells how seeing fish helped a pre-kindergarten child open up and start speaking in school. She previously had gone weeks without saying a word. One of the child’s teachers, “Miss Jan,” noticed a change as soon as they entered the first exhibit at the aquarium.

“Incredibly, in the inspirational and immersive aquarium environment, the child began to speak to her pre-kindergarten teachers, showing a level of engagement they had not seen in the previous 9 months,” says Young.

To encourage continued speech, Miss Jan offered to buy a souvenir animal ring if the girl would describe which one she liked. The teacher’s eyes welled up with tears when the child said, “Yes! A sting ray please!”

Dr. Chelsea Anderson, a veterinarian at Georgia Aquarium, knows from experience how powerful the human-animal bond can be for a child. “Growing up, I was one of those little kids who liked to go to aquariums,” she recalls. “My first trip was when I was 5 years old. We have pictures of me and my sister up against the glass, mesmerized by the animals. Years later, I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s been a fun ride all the way through!”

Dolphin in a tank in front of a crowd.

Playful dolphin engages visitors at the Georgia Aquarium.
(Photo by Tim Daniels)

A School Where Fish Do the Teaching

Groups of fish are called schools, and they live up to their name. Aquariums provide a world of educational opportunities. Visitors from big cities or remote towns may never travel to the ocean. At an aquarium, they can see all kinds of fish, as well as birds like penguins and mammals such as otters. Anderson says some people pop into Georgia Aquarium every week to see their favorite species. Schoolchildren sit spellbound in front of the Ocean Voyager windows, watching whale sharks swim by.

Children may be able to touch animals like sharks and rays in “touch pools”—then use nearby hand-washing stations to remove germs and stay healthy. Georgia Aquarium’s veterinarians also wash their hands after touching animals. “We don’t want to introduce any germs from one habitat to another,” Anderson explains.

Guests learn about water habitats and how to protect them so fish and animals can thrive in the wild.

“We’re all about conservation of our oceans,” says Susan Oglesby. “We challenge people who come in for the healing process in our dive immersion programs to take up that charge, to become ambassadors for whale sharks, for instance.”

Back in the depths of the Ocean Voyager exhibit, Army veterans give a thumbs-up as a stingray passes overhead. They wave strongly and proudly to their families, who are watching through a viewing window in the main tank. After 35 minutes underwater, the divers swim back up to the surface and do indeed emerge as new ambassadors.

They say the rare opportunity to swim with whale sharks and manta rays has helped them build confidence, regain a sense of calm, and remember how to play and have fun.

“The experience of swimming with the gentle giants was epic,” declares one warrior, a single mom from Puerto Rico. “After many sacrifices, I got to do something that means a lot to me. It’s been the greatest experience of my life.”

Chaplain Beaver also acknowledges the profound benefits. “The positive impact that swimming in peaceful waters with giant fish of the oceans cannot be overstated when it comes to aiding the healing process from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder,” he declares.