By Debbie Gregory.
As crazy as it sounds, swimming with the largest shark in the world is therapy for some Atlanta disabled veterans.
The Atlanta VA Medical Center’s recreational therapy program recently partnered with the Georgia Aquarium allowing disabled Veterans the chance to participate in the “Journey with Gentle Giants” dive immersion program.
Journey with Gentle Giants is the only opportunity in the world guaranteed to allow participants to swim or dive with whale sharks, zebra sharks, sawfish, leopard whiprays, bowmouth guitarfish, humphead wrasses, pompano and several species of rays. Whale sharks have very large mouths, but feed mainly on plankton, which is very good news to those who swim or dive alongside them! Whale sharks are generally considered harmless to humans. The exhibit contains 6.3 million gallons of water and ranges in depth from 20 to 33 feet deep.
As a thank you for their service and sacrifices, the Georgia Aquarium developed the Veterans Immersion Program in 2008 as a way to support the wounded heroes of our armed forces. The unique adjunctive therapy compliments current rehabilitation and reintegration programs. Participants challenge themselves with an experience outside their comfort zones, encounter enormous animals, and for some, relax and move in the water in ways they may not be able to on land.
Since its founding, the program has hosted more than 1,300 military personnel who have been physically, emotionally, or mentally wounded – injuries both seen and unseen. Participants of all abilities, from quadriplegia or amputations to post traumatic stress or traumatic brain injuries) are welcome 365 days a year to swim or dive.
These veterans are supported by Handicapped Scuba Certified Dive Masters and Instructors, led by a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist. Each member of the team is trained to safely lead disabled divers and swimmers.