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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.

Ocean voy­ager
Whale sharkWith­out 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 the More info sec­tion 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 Dolphin soundseffect 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

Goal: 7000 tigers in the wild

Tiger range countries map

Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.


about zoos and their mis­sion regard­ing breed­ing endan­gered species, nature con­ser­va­tion, bio­di­ver­sity and edu­ca­tion, which of course relates to the evo­lu­tion of species.
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