Georgia Aquarium is a major entertainment attraction in the US and while visiting Atlanta I decided I should not only go to the Zoo. So, on the morning of 4 June I walked through Centennial Olympic park towards the entrance of the Aquarium, meanwhile passing another major attraction of Atlanta – the World of Coca-Cola. The first thing you experience after entering the building is that it is dark inside. The lights are dimmed everywhere to improve the viewing experience. Neither I nor my camera like this, but it is one of the prerequisites to create an entertaining aquarium such as Georgia Aquarium. Unfortunately, this has some consequences for the quality of the footage, with an additional blur and reflection due to the viewing windows.
Without doubt the largest tank in a US aquarium or zoo, “Ocean Voyager”, will impress any visitor. Not only by its own size but also because of the size of its inhabitants. This exhibit is specially designed to house up to six whale sharks, the largest fish species in the world. Four whale sharks are kept here, all coming from Taiwan's commercial fishery. Until 2008 Taiwanese fishers were allowed to catch a quota of whale sharks annually for food – which is forbidden since then. The whale sharks at Georgia Aquarium are taken out of that quota1. So, in a sense they are harvested from the wild, but instead of ending up on a plate, dead, they are now on display, alive. The Georgia aquarium is the only aquarium in the US with whale sharks.
Several other species, such as sharks, goliath groupers, stingrays and manta rays, swim around in the 23 million liters of saltwater. There are plenty of viewing opportunities with about 425 m2 of viewing windows, a 30 meter long underwater tunnel, 185 tons of acrylic windows and a huge viewing window of 7 by 18 meter, and 0.6 meter thick.
Apart from their largest tank the other aquaria are dedicated to habitats, which provide a snapshot of what you may expect to see in aquatic environment around the globe, salt and fresh water.
The tropical diver aquarium resembles the ocean's side of the coral reef and shows the tropical species of this ecosystem. Artificial waves are used to oxygenate the water and about 50% of the coral is actual living coral. At cold water quest there are Californian sea otters, Beluga whales and African penguins on display. The three sea otters reside in an enclosure that has recently been doubled in size, but still it consist of a rather shallow tank, certainly not as deep as the sea otter tank in Monterey Bay Aquarium. The group of Beluga whales comprises two adults and two young, the latter are born at SeaWorld San Antonio. The penguin enclosure is very middle of the road but acrylic tunnels and pop-up windows, built into the exhibit, allow guests to have close encounters with the birds.
At the river scout exhibit the albino alligators and the small-clawed otters attract the most attention. The Asian small-clawed otter enclosure contains extremely active little busybodies. A rock bottom multi-level enclosure with a clear water pool including viewing window let you see the entertainment that is on going under water. There's a waterfall and several enrichment attributes. The group on display during my visit comprises five females, which are all related according to the keeper. The group of males is off exhibit.
Besides all the exotic species, there is an area with endemic species called Georgia explorer. It has a very popular and large touch-pool with three different species of ray, including cownose rays. Furthermore there's a touch-pool with sea urchins, crabs and other shellfish. In the same area the red lionfish (Pterois volitans) is on display. This venomous predator invaded the Florida waters in 2000 probably after being released from private aquariums. They originally come from the Indo-Pacific region such as the Philippines and Indonesia, but became an invasive problem in the Caribbean Sea and have spread northwards with great speed. After invading Florida waters in 2000 they arrived in Georgia waters already in 2007. Their success as an invasive species is due to the lack of predators, their voracious behaviour as a hunter, and the abundance of prey fish available. Currently, the red lionfish have established themselves off the whole east coast which alters the ecosystem. The introduction and spread of the red lionfish and their effect as an invasive species on the ecosystem is very well explained on info panels. See for more information.
Related to all exhibits is Georgia Aquarium's involvement in an in-situ (native habitat) conservation project, where loggerhead sea turtles are rehabilitated and released back into their natural habitats – shallow coastal waters all over the world.
Then there is the major attraction, for most people I presume, the dolphin tales show. This is the part I personally dislike about the Georgia Aquarium concept, but I can understand that people who want to be entertained fall for the show with the bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). And to be honest it is an experience you will remember, but the question is: do you want to remember a show with animals under circumstances that are far from natural. The show starts in the dark, and during the show the lights stay dimmed. This is to create the element of surprise – when the animals enter the arena – and to have a more effect of the lights-and-sound-show they use. It must be said that the dolphins do not have to show many tricks, they do not have to jump through hoops or touch a ball hung high from the ceiling. They just may show off their capabilities in high-speed swimming and do summersaults, which are both part of their natural behaviour. Unfortunately, while doing so the dolphins have to drag their trainers through the water on high speed or allow the trainers to stand on their backs. All, for the effect of course. And effect they need, because the tale being told in this show in which the dolphins are starring, is absolutely ridiculous. But Georgia Aquarium is getting away with it. Although animal welfare activists constantly argue that dolphin welfare is impaired by not only the small size of the tanks but also by the loud music for instance, as dolphins communicate and navigate by sounds (echolocation) which is interfered by the noise. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of the majority of the visitors seem to be genuine, but personally I regret to have sponsored this show by buying a ticket.
In addition to the regular exhibits they had the travelling exhibit World of frogs in a separate room with an interesting collection of frogs representing the global frog world. Georgia Aquarium is well-known, especially for their gigantic water tanks, but probably they would gain even more fame when they would invest in a permanent accommodation for such a frog collection. Unfortunately, probably due to the fact it is a travelling exhibit, the frogs are kept in non-distinct terrariums. To become a permanent collection at Georgia Aquarium you may expect a more innovative concept for amphibian husbandry.
They try to get a message across about the need for conservation using a variety of methods:
use videos with experts telling about species decline, and why it should be stopped (frogs)
the 3D theatre, which provide a 4D experience with interactive seats, features a movie that reveals the interconnected lives of underwater creatures and the destructive impact of pollution on the ocean and its inhabitants. The basic message: “humans are the cause of all trouble in the oceans”.
information panels with adequate info.
Though the right information is provided about the effect of invasive species on delicate ecosystems or the impact of manmade pollution on the oceans, no suggestions are made or solutions are provided how to stop this. Moreover, there is so much distraction and entertainment available that I really wonder if the take home message is getting through to the visitors anyway.
Let's hope that the education department, with its quite extensive variety of programmes for students of all ages, do a better job in raising awareness about the need to conserve nature. And at the same time provide the youth with ideas and perspective for action.
At the end of the visit you have to pass the merchandise shop while making your way to the exit. And I must say this the best stocked, with useless souvenirs, merchandise shop I have ever seen in a Zoo or Aquarium.
1 Ethical Debate: Captive whale sharks by David Shiffman in Southern Fried Science