09:30 AM

Swimming with Whale Sharks Provides Therapy and Fun

Georgia Aquarium and Shepherd Center team up to provide recreational therapy for patients.

“I just swam with four sharks!” exclaimed 16-year old Nick Yarter from Massachusetts as he recalled how he’d just spent the past half-hour.

Nick wasn’t alone. One of four young men who came to swim in the Ocean Voyager exhibit on an August morning as part of a special partnership between Georgia Aquarium and Shepherd Center, he was there to have fun, while getting a therapeutic experience.

“Here at the Georgia Aquarium, we believe in recreation therapy,” said Susan Oglesby, manager of the dive immersion program at Georgia Aquarium and a certified therapeutic recreation specialist. She explained the program to the group of divers and their parents.

Oglesby helped start the program, known to the public as Journey with Gentle Giants, in 2008 when the Aquarium introduced injured veterans to the water. Not long after that, Shepherd Center came on board to give patients an opportunity to add a sense of wonder to their recreation therapy regimen. It’s something Shepherd Center does about four to five times each year. Today, the program is open not only to injured veterans and Shepherd patients, but to the general public, as well.

As fun as it is for patients to swim with the giants of the deep, it’s therapeutic, too, said Angie Pihera, a recreation therapist at Shepherd Center.

“These patients have a lot of secondary complications, and those are directly affected by their activity level,” she said. “If a patient doesn’t leave their house very often and get involved, it’s more likely for them to be less healthy.”

Initial research published in the Journal of Spinal Cord Medicine in 2012 bears this out. That study was conducted by Cecilia Rider, Andrew Bogenschutz and Kelly Edens from Shepherd Center, along with scientists from Craig Hospital, the Institute for Clinical Outcomes Research and MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital. They found that people who participated more actively in therapeutic recreation and community activities during rehabilitation had greater independence in their motor functions and were more likely to participate in activities like work and school – both at the time of discharge and one year later. In addition, they were less likely to have to be readmitted to the hospital than patients who didn’t actively participate in those activities.

Judging by the amazement on the young men’s faces as they rolled through the doors to the top of the exhibit, the four who were about to get in the water weren’t likely thinking about all that. They were thinking about getting in the 6.3-million-gallon water environment to swim alongside creatures that can grow up to 40 feet in length.

“We’re going to give you the opportunity to adapt to our environment today,” Oglesby said to them before they got into their wetsuits. “The animals are going to look you in the eye as they figure you out. You’ll find that the less you do, the more you’re going to experience.”

About to become one of the smaller creatures in a new environment, the men were no strangers to learning to adapt. They had been doing that since they were first injured.

Hunter Brooks, 24, from North Carolina is adapting to a C-5 spinal cord contusion he sustained after a truck accident in April.

Hugo Rubinosa, 20, from North Carolina, has been adapting for more than three years after the state-ranked high school wrestler sustained a spinal cord injury.

Corey Pope, 21, from Arkansas, is learning how to adapt after an accident on his four-wheeler left him without a kidney, a broken femur and unable to move his right foot due to incomplete paraplegia.

Nick Yarter, 16, has always been at home in the water, but now he’s adapting to life with a C-5 spinal cord injury after a diving accident a few months ago.

All of them use wheelchairs to get around on land, but when the aquarium visitors gaze at them swimming from the tunnel that runs below the exhibit, there’s no indication of their mobility impairments. In the water, they are all at home, yet visitors to a whole new world.

“It’s wonderful. He’s so excited,” said Hugo’s mother, Maria Rodriguez. “It’s amazing. It gives him a lot of confidence. He feels like he can do anything anybody can do. He would always say, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’ He still says that. His attitude has become a motivation for everybody.”

As the men swim along the top of the exhibit, manta rays swim loop-de-loops nearby, and schools of silver and yellow fish convene below.

“This water makes people happy. It touches your soul,” Oglesby said. “It’s not like anything else in the whole world. When you’re in there, everything else goes away, and you have complete freedom.”

The trip doesn’t just have positive benefits for the patients. The water is healing for the patients’ families, too. As they stand in the tunnel that runs through the exhibit gazing up at the Aquarium’s “gentle giants” and their guests, their faces gleam with joy.

“This is fantastic! He’ll probably remember this for the rest of his life,” said Roger Brooks, Hunter’s father.

Describing the patients’ experience in the water, Oglesby said: “You get beyond your disability. You just dove with sharks. It makes you part of a very small population.”

As they got out of the water and came off the dock, they emerged back into the world of dry land, full of wonder at what they had just experienced. And they all expressed it in the same way – “awesome!”

Beaming with joy, they talked about being in the water, rays doing flips and being brushed by the whale sharks as they swam nearby. The Aquarium staff came and put an Aquaman crest on Corey’s chest as he waited for his swim mates to change out of their wet suits.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “You feel like you’re in another world.”

Written by David Terraso
Photos by Adam Davila and Underwater Photos Courtesy of Georgia Aquarium


Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.