Whale sharks are affectionately referred to as “the gentle giants of the sea.” The largest fish in the world, whale sharks can grow upwards of 33 feet in size. They are a sight to see especially at the world-renowned Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta -- the only aquarium in the United States, as well as the western hemisphere to have whale sharks -- who graciously hosted Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express (GSF SBE) on Sunday, August 4.
Standing shoulder to shoulder along the viewing deck inside the football field-size indoor pool, home to an array of sea life including whale sharks, children ages 5-10 stood in amazement as they peered down into the 30-foot deep expanse of teal-blue water to watch a pair of whale sharks effortlessly glide by.
Manta rays of all sizes, turtles and fish of all stripes swam in a frolic.
The kids were spellbound.
“It was amazing,” said six-year-old Aaliyah Angol whose angelic smile and excitement while talking about whale sharks — “the big sharks” as she calls them — was shared by her friends. Aaliyah was joined at the Aquarium by her cousin Ky-lynn Leechong who liked seeing the bottlenose dolphins.
As Aaliyah, Ky-lynn and their friends stood next to the acrylic panoramic window which offered unprecedented views of dolphins in one of their five habitats at the aquarium, they were transfixed by the animals swimming in different directions with some making slow passes closeby to the window.
Asking questions to their personal guide for the day, Molly Johnson, senior educator at the Georgia Aquarium, the kids natural curiosity spanned what the sleeping habits of dolphins are to what kinds of food dolphins prefer to eat.
“I love that we get to teach to these kids. They were so inquisitive and great,” said Johnson who led the group of 5-10 year-olds around the aquarium and whose lesson plan for the day included an in-classroom experience learning about the importance of recycling and its impact on the environment.
During one portion of the classroom lesson, kids tried to figure how many years objects such as a newspaper, an apple core, a milk carton and a plastic bottle would take to breakdown in the ground.
The kids’ wild guesses were as surprising as the actual answers: a plastic bottle takes 450 years to completely breakdown and an apple core takes two months.
Instilling environmentally-conscious behavior at a young age will hopefully lead to better decision making, said Johnson, “the biggest takeaway is that it’s important to recycle, reuse, reduce, and recycle.”
Kimberly Maltbie, whose husband, Lieutenant Col. Richard Maltbie Jr. passed away in 2015 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, was at the aquarium with her three sons, Ashton, Chase, and Spencer who were all particularly impressed at Dolphin Celebration — a live show where bottlenose dolphins display their athleticism and intelligence through tricks and responding to commands by their trainers.
“The dolphin show was really cool,” exclaimed Spencer who is completely fascinated by dolphins.
“Super awesome day for the kids and for all of us families to come and be a part of everything. You can’t beat it,” said Kimberly who first took part in Snowball Express in Texas before the event merged with the Gary Sinise Foundation in 2017.
Offering events year-round, not just in Orlando, she said, “it makes it good for the rest of us families to see families that are close to us. We get to interact with families that live close to us and it’s great for the kids.”
The unshakeable bonds that are formed through GSF SBE community events taking place around the country and year-round foster special relationships for those enduring the pain of having lost a loved one in service to the country.
“We met so many people that I felt so connected to immediately,” said Natali Osborn whose seven-year-old son Landon liked seeing dolphins and sharks up close.
“We’re overwhelmed with gratitude.”
This was the Osborn’s first GSF SBE experience and who will take part at the year-end event at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
“I love the Snowball community, it’s a great program,” said Candi Singley whose husband David passed away in 2017 and who was joined at the aquarium by her friend Charity Thomas and her kids.
Charity, who lost her husband Andy in 2015, decided to join GSF SBE years later when her kids would be of age so that they would be able to enjoy the host of programs put on by the Gary Sinise Foundation.
“It seemed to have helped them because they realize there are other kids out there that are experiencing similar situations,” said Thomas about her kids feeling connected to the GSF SBE community and who have developed new friendships with other participants as a result of their shared experience.
“There’s not many of us like this so for everyone to come together it’s nice,” said Chance Singley, who at 18-years-old was one of the older kids participating in the day’s program.
More than 70 kids of all ages were on hand at the aquarium who were organized into multiple age groups.
A shared highlight by many from the day was the up-close and interactive experience at Sea Lion encounter where trained sea lions demonstrated their repertoire of tricks and commands by performing them in front of and next to the kids and their guardian.
During the 30 minute experience, kids and their guardians smiled and laughed as Jupiter, a 145-pound sea lion and one of the youngest to grace the intimate space where the encounter took place, and Diego, a 500-pound sea lion, showed off their dance moves — dab included — and their range of vocals by belting out loud and proud to the applause of everyone in attendance.
With plenty of treats being thrown into their mouths by the kids at the direction of the animal trainers to reward their good behavior, Jupiter and Diego gave them all high fives and even wet kisses.
Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express serves the children of our nation’s fallen military heroes. Through the generosity of the American public, we’re able to offer year-round support, resources, healing activities and celebratory events like a visit to the Georgia Aquarium, that help these children and families learn, grow, and make lasting memories together.