Beluga whales – the permanently smiling, arctic white "canaries of the sea." It's one thing to see them twirling about behind a giant Plexiglas tank, it's a whole other to have all 3,000 pounds of one wading right in front of you, begging you to reach out and play. The Georgia Aquarium is one of only six facilities in the world to host beluga whales, and through the aquarium's new Beluga & Friends Interactive Program you get the once-in-a-lifetime chance to get in the water with the playful creatures.

The whole experience is set up so you are like an aquatic trainer for the day – from the custom wet-suits hanging in your locker room to the personalized 4:1 maximum trainer ratio. The program takes out no more than eight people at a time, and groups are split into four people per station. You can expect to meet most of the aquarium's four beluga residents on any given dip.

Trainers teach you the commands to communicate with the whales, so you help lead the acrobatics. Motion like an orchestra conductor to hear the whales sing, or twirl like a ballerina to watch them mimic your moves. If you're lucky, you might see Beethoven, the oldest, leaping feet above the water; or be left standing in shock after Qinu, the youngest whale, spits buckets of saltwater into your eagerly ajar mouth.

Be ready to get touchy feely. One of the neatest parts of the program is feeding the belugas (hint: they eat raw fish), and getting to pet their melons and marble-smooth skin – their squishiness rivals the best memory foam mattress.

The water is about 55 degrees, but between your custom-fit wetsuit (the staff ask for your weight, height and shoe size when you book the tour to ensure a snug fit) and the rush from getting in the water with whales, the chilly temp is barely an after-thought.

Just when you start to wonder who these "Friends" are in the Beluga & Friends title, your trainer leads you to an adjacent tank where one-by-one the harbor seals come out to meet you – slipping and sliding through the training-room floor.

You won't be going into the water blind though. Before and after you meet the marine mammals, lively aquarium staff lead you through presentations in which you learn about conservation efforts and beluga factoids, i.e. they are made of 40% blubber, and are the most vocal animals of the sea (hence the nickname "canaries of the sea").

In case you have a hard time convincing friends of your "I swam with beluga whales in the middle of Atlanta" story, staff photographers snap evidence all along the way.

Who can argue with a picture of you hugging a beluga whale?

Go try it: Programs run twice daily at 10am and 1:15pm. Participants must be 5' or taller. To reserve a spot call 404/581-4000.

The two-hour program will run you $225 per person ($205 for members), and includes admission to the aquarium, animal encounter, and a souvenir towel and photo.

Photo courtesy: Georgia Aquarium