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Atlanta's new Georgia Aquarium makes a big splash



The Georgia Aquarium, located near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, Georgia.

 



 

GDO Report

Nautical venue includes a pod of five Beluga whales.

"The Cold Water Quest gallery, which contains some of the world's most beloved and most feared sea creatures, is a favorite of most visitors."

Avast there, maties! Something mighty fishy is going on in Atlanta.

When Bernie Marcus, one of the original flounders... er, founders of Home Depot, said he was going to build the world's biggest aquarium, by golly Jolly Roger, that's just what he did.

With 8 million gallons of water, 505,000 square feet of covered space, and more than 100,000 fish and other aquatic creatures representing some 500 species from lakes, rivers and the seven seas around the world, the Georgia Aquarium, located near Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta, is $290 million well spent.

Marcus -- along with other Georgia-based corporate sponsors including AirTran, BellSouth, SunTrust, Southern Co. and Georgia-Pacific -- created a nautical venue in the aquarium that, since its opening in November, has been making waves as one of the crown jewels in Georgia tourism.

ENTER THE ATRIUM

Upon entering the aquarium, you're first in a huge atrium-like area that is like the center cog of a wagon wheel. The spokes of the "wheel" fan out into the aquarium's 3-D theater known as "Deepo's Undersea 3D Wondershow," two gift shops, the Oceans Ballroom that can be rented for special events, the Cafe Aquaria Food Court and the five major galleries, each a world unto itself, including Georgia Explorer, Tropical Diver, Ocean Voyager, Cold Water Quest and River Scout.

Subtle lighting reflects everywhere on the floor, the walls, the ceiling and right away your imagination takes you 20,000 leagues under the sea.

As a true-blue Georgian, I first walked the plank to the Georgia Explorer gallery, perhaps the most interactive of all five galleries and geared toward children and adults who, like me, on occasion still act like children. Highlighted by play areas and special "touch tanks" full of critters such as horseshoe crabs, starfish, bonnethead sharks and stingrays -- all of which can be found on Gray's Reef Marine National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia coast -- this section includes a loggerhead turtle.

Next I swam through the sea of landlubbers to the Tropical Diver section, where Dr. Seuss's "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" immediately came to mind. This gallery is a pirate's treasure chest of gemstone-colored tropical fish in hues of ruby, sapphire, amethyst, emerald, amber, garnet and tanzanite, as well as other nonfish creatures like the exotic little seahorse silently suspended in its salty home, squiggly-but-graceful jellyfish, and the leafy sea dragon, which I thought were floating clumps of seaweed until a guide pointed out otherwise.

As you round the bend into the River Scout section, created so that acrylic tunnels of water surround you to give you the impression you're actually in a river, you'll see nicely whiskered catfish, sturgeon, arawanas, eels, eerily glowing electric fish and schools of toothy black and red piranhas.

The Cold Water Quest gallery, which contains some of the world's most beloved and most feared sea creatures, is a favorite of most visitors with its active and energetic sea otters that are, in the words of one of the volunteer guides, "totally cool." These guys love to play, as do the nearby sea lions whose bark sounds like laughter. The African penguins are as cool as the otters and sea lions, and they're quite elegant in their natural tuxedoes. And, shiver me timbers, there's also a giant octopus that makes you glad that he's on the other side of the glass.

But the star attraction of Cold Water Quest is indisputably the pod of five Beluga whales, animals that are so mesmerizing and stunningly beautiful with as-creamy-as-butter skin and pleasant expressions that you can do little more than stand in front of their pool with your mouth wide open in astonishment and awe. Growing to nearly two tons, these almost surrealistic beauties whirl, twirl and swirl in an aquatic dance choreographed to the beat of some mysterious music heard only by them.

Containing 6 million of the aquarium's 8 million gallons of water and 85,000 of its 100,000 fish, the Ocean Voyager section should be saved for last. Winding through a clear tunnel on a moving sidewalk, you're encircled by a watery circus of hammerhead sharks, sawfish, giant stingrays and whale sharks.

At the end of the tunnel, you round a corner to find yourself staring up at Ocean Voyager Theater, a 28-foot tall, 63-foot wide window that gives you absolutely the best view in the house. As I stood captivated by the thousands of fish floating ghost-like in front of me, a massive grouper surrounded by dozens of smaller fish swam slowly into view as if he were king of the aquarium.

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