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Surrounded by Whale Sharks, Veterans Find Peace at Georgia Aquarium

posted: 06/05/15
by: Danny Clemens
Georgia Aquarium whale shark diver
Georgia Aquarium

For a veteran, the transition from a combat zone back into civilian life can be difficult, to say the very least. A program at the Georgia Aquarium, however, harnesses the remarkable majesty of marine wildlife to make that transition just a bit easier.

Founded in 2008, the Veterans Immersion Program affords veterans the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to swim in a 6.3 million gallon habitat with thousands of the aquarium's most awe-inspiring animals, from rays to whale sharks. In seven years, the program has helped over 1,000 veterans find peace and tranquility beneath the surface.

"This program gives participants an opportunity to challenge themselves to experience something outside their comfort zone. Floating freely in an environment that they cannot control, filled with great and beautiful animals, often results in complete relaxation and letting go. Participants adapt to our environment. The satisfaction of accomplishment and the feeling of peace becomes a good part of their memories, one that they can return to in times of stress," explains Susan Oglesby, the program's certified therapeutic recreation specialist. "For many this is the first time to feel peace or even pain-free since deployment."

Georgia Aquarium ray divers
Georgia Aquarium

Before the immersive experience, participants are briefed on what to expect as part of a pre-dive orientation. Throughout the dive, certified dive masters accompany all divers, who stay near the surface of the water, and have minimal physical interaction with the wildlife.

"It is a no-touch event," adds Oglesby. "However, making eye contact with a 20-foot whale shark or a 12-foot manta ray or any other of the almost 5000 animals is a crazy-cool interaction in itself!"

The program also provides a unique opportunity for veterans recovering from physical injuries: submerged in the water, the participants are able to move and control their bodies in ways that they may not be able to on land. The aquarium is home to the word's largest team of Handicapped Scuba Association Certified Dive Masters and Instructors.

The the veterans who participate, the event is truly transformative, as one recent participant explains:

"I am at a loss for words when describing what I experienced today to my family. The entire experience [...] was, for lack of better words, comforting. I felt on my drive home like I just had therapy that targeted my deepest injuries. Injuries that have haunted my subconscious making my life difficult, without really knowing how to soothe the pain. Today, I found peace. Not just while underwater, but by the people who surrounded me. And I could see in the others that they were experiencing the same."

Animal-assisted therapy has been going on for at least 150 years, NPR reports, but the benefits have only been scientifically proven in the past few decades. For example, a 1984 study found that pet-owning heart attack patients lived longer than non-pet-owners.

Obviously, the relationship between human and animal is two-sided. As such, aquarium staff take every precaution necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of the animals during the dives:

"Guest immersion experiences are designed not only to provide unforgettable memories but also to ensure the animals continue to thrive in the presence of divers and swimmers," explains Georgia Aquarium spokesperson Jessica Fontana. "This is accomplished by setting limits on the number of participants in each program, managing the frequency of those programs, and providing pre-dive orientation classes for guests."

Click here for more information about the Veterans Immersion Program

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