On 23 November 2005, Georgia Aquarium officially opened its doors to the public. At the time the Georgia Aquarium featured more animals than any other aquarium in more than ten million gallons of water. Through a path of over sixty exhibits, the Aquarium tells a global water story, with features modelled after the greatest zoos and aquariums in the world. Each exhibit is designed to inspire, entertain and educate.
In 1979, Bernie Marcus co-founded The Home Depot, opening its first stores and its headquarters in Atlanta, GA. By revolutionising the home improvement industry, The Home Depot became one of the fastest growing companies in America. Bernie Marcus knew The Home Depot would not have achieved its full potential without the incredible support of the citizens of Atlanta and Georgia, including customers, associates and stockholders. Marcus desired to give back to the great community of Atlanta through a gift that reached as many different lives as possible, just as The Home Depot has touched the lives of a broad and diverse customer base. In his vision, he also wanted to promote economic impact for the city and state, bring growth and new jobs and help create a destination to inspire visitors to stay — and stay longer.
In 2003, Marcus announced his gift to the city of Atlanta – the Georgia Aquarium. Due to Marcus’ $250 million gift to Georgia, the Aquarium was able to open debt free.
The above history is reprinted from materials available at website Georgia Aquarium.
(Source: website Georgia Aquarium)
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
Ocean Voyager basin with whale sharks at Georgia Aquarium
It is very relaxing to watch the whale sharks and manta rays floating by when you stand in front of the large viewing window of the Ocean Voyager basin:
Californian sea otters at Georgia Aquarium
Although their tank is quite small the Californian sea otters at the Georgia Aquarium seem to enjoy themselves, and doing exactly what a lot of people think is funny about them, floating on their back while exercising their forefeet as if to break the shell of a clam. The sea otter is one of the few species that use tools during foraging. They can even ‘store’ a favourite tool such as a rock, under a skinfold near their arm pit, for future use:
Asian small-clawed otters at Georgia Aquarium are real busybodies
When the otters are swimming close to the window and pressing their forefeet against it, you should know that the zookeeper is talking to some people in the corridor. So, what do you expect, the little otters are anxiously waiting for a snack:
Beluga whales, four of them, at Georgia Aquarium
This is one of the few species kept at Georgia Aquarium that has been classified by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, its status being Near Threatened. Fortunately As you can see they utilise the full capacity of their tank, and they have a little friend – a seal – to play with :
Red lionfish, the worst marine invasion ever
Red lionfish (Pterois volitans) are a rare and beautiful sighting for divers in their native waters around the Great Barrier Reef, but in the reefs around the Florida coast and Caribbean they are viewed as a huge nuisance.
The red lionfish has made its way into science because of its remarkable success in the Caribbean, where it is eating its way through the reef ecosystem. Lionfish are native to the Pacific, but they have been accidentally introduced in the Caribbean almost 30 years ago. Since then it is taking over the Caribbean Basin and moving further north along the US East Coast.
To discover the reason for this success has been the objective of a recently published study in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. Many studies before have tried to understand how these gorgeous but deadly predators can wreak such havoc on their invaded ecosystem. The new research suggests that the solution in part lies in the power of camouflage, as these voracious carnivores are virtually undetectable by small prey fish. The researchers have found that the spiny, toxic and beautiful members of the world’s coral reef communities are undetectable by prey, acting as ghosts able to feed on anything and everything without being discovered until it’s too late.
They tested the response of small prey fish to three different predators, one of them the lionfish. For some reason, the common prey fish were unable to learn that the lionfish represented a threat, which was very different to their response to two other fish predators. This ability to bypass a very well-studied learning mechanism commonly used by prey to learn new risks is a world first, and has in part lead to the astounding success of lionfish in the Caribbean.
Without any natural enemies in their new system and no problem catching food, the lionfish are practically unstoppable, which is kind of impressive. The abundant and easy prey makes the lionfish fat, as demonstrated in the article by Christie Wilcox in Slate magazine, where several images of obese lionfish are shown. But the key to their success is that they grow fast, mature early, and breed year-round. Unfortunately, the inevitable increase in population size together with their predatory behaviour is very destructive for the ecosystems of the invaded areas, disturbing the delicate balance in these ecosystems.
(Source: James Cook University media release, 17.10.2013; PLoS ONE, ‘Ultimate Predators: lionfish have evolved to circumvent prey risk assessment abilities’, 16.10.2013; Slate magazine, ‘The worst marine invasion ever’, 01.07.2013)
Cetaceans from the Wild
Collection of Cetaceans from the Wild, a statement of Georgia Aquarium
Following an extensive and unfruitful twelve-year effort to relocate 18 beluga whales from Russia to the United States to create a sustainable population of the beluga whales in human care in North America, the leadership of Georgia Aquarium has decided that it will no longer seek to collect dolphins or beluga whales from the wild except in rescue situations.
This decision was reached after the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the aquarium’s permit application to import the beluga whales from Sea of Okhotsk, despite a validated peer-review population abundance study that concluded the population is stable and will not be negatively affected by acquiring a limited number of belugas from that area.
They feel strongly they were doing what was right and lawful and that NOAA Fisheries violated their longstanding interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specifically stresses the importance of caring for animals at zoos and aquariums in order to not only advance science, but to encourage conservation and awareness in the millions of guests who visit these organizations.
However, they believe NOAA’s decision is precedent-setting and could be challenging for any future requests for acquisition from ocean-dwelling populations.
The aquarium remains committed to its important mission of providing exceptional care of cetaceans as well as educational, conservation and research efforts. It will continue its dolphin and beluga whale programs through breeding and exchange of animals living at high-quality care facilities.
(Source: Georgia Aquarium press release, 22.06.2016)
Georgia Aquarium will not take whales & dolphins from the wild
The Georgia Aquarium, yesterday, announced that it will no longer take whales and dolphins from the wild. The Aquarium, which had previously applied to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia, makes this announcement days after the first showing of the highly-anticipated ‘Born To Be Free’ documentary about the brutal capture of Beluga from the wild – a film we may come to call the next ‘Blackfish for Belugas’.
The 18 whales were originally caught in 2012 after the Georgia Aquarium first applied for a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to import them from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk. The application was rejected by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS); a decision appealed by Georgia Aquarium in the US District Court in September 2013. In October 2015 a Federal court in Washington DC rejected the application outright. The Aquarium did not appeal.
Since their capture, the whales have been kept in holding tanks at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where they are still in limbo. They belong to Russia but Aquarium Chairman and CEO Michael Leven, says The Aquarium felt responsible for them. “We’ve tried very hard to get these animals housed somewhere in the world,” he said. “We just felt that we had a moral and ethical responsibility to find them a place.”
‘These whales are no longer destined for Georgia Aquarium but are still destined for life in a tank.’ says Born Free Programmes Officer Samantha Goddard. ‘These whales were caught from the wild and yet captivity is being offered as the solution. These individuals have remained in the country they were caught, in the group that was caught together. The single most important question that remains unanswered is: “Could they be candidates for rehabilitation to the wild where they could re-join a population which has been openly declared as depleted.’
Whilst The Born Free Foundation congratulates such a forward looking decision by Georgia Aquarium, we cannot — we must not — ignore the fact that there are 18 wild animals who should not spend the rest of their days in captivity.
(Source: Born Free news, 23.06.2016)
See also my blog about this issue.
Directions to Georgia Aquarium
The Georgia Aquarium is located in downtown Atlanta across from Centennial Olympic Park.
225 Baker Street NW
United States of America
Download the aquarium map here.