The Georgia Aquarium is a new aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia featuring over 100,000 specimens in tanks holding approximately 8 million US gallons (30,000 m³) of water and billed as the "world's largest aquarium." The aquarium's most notable specimens include young whale sharks Ralph and Norton and five beluga whales.
Funded mostly by a US$200 million donation from Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, the aquarium was built on a 20 acre (81,000 m²) site just north of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown. Marcus credits his 60th birthday dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1990 as among the inspirations behind his desire to build an aquarium in Atlanta.
The Georgia Aquarium opened first to annual pass holders on November 21, 2005, then to the general public on November 23. At $23 per adult, admission to the non-profit aquarium is among the most expensive in the country. In its first two months, the aquarium has proven very popular hosting over 620,000 visitors. It also sold over 290,000 annual passes for the first year before sales were halted having far exceeded expectations.
The Georgia Aquarium contains between 100,000 to 120,000 fish and other sea creatures, representing more than five hundred species. The two most famous specimens, Ralph and Norton are two young whale sharks acquired from Taiwan. This is the first time whale sharks have been kept in captivity outside of Japan. The sharks are kept in a 6.2 million gallon tank. On June 14, 2005, the total number of specimens was unveiled after having previously being reported as "over 55,000." Marcus was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying, "I have been saying that we would have more than 55,000 fish; I just never said how many more." The new number was announced after a shipment that brought the total to 100,000. The fish were transported from Taiwan to the Aquarium by the Atlanta-headquartered UPS, in 42 tanks aboard an MD-11. UPS donated the cost of the shipping, estimated at over $200,000. The aquarium is home to five 11 foot (3 meter) long beluga whales. Two of these, males named Nico and Gasper, were rescued from mistreatment at a Mexico City amusement park. The three other beluga whales are females, and were donated by the New York Aquarium. The Aquarium joins at least six other US aquariums, including Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, with belugas in their collections.
The aquatic animals are displayed in five different exhibits, each of which corresponds to a specific environment. At the left as one enters the aquarium is the Georgia Explorer exhibit, geared especially towards children. It features a number of touch tanks with rays and sharks as well as exhibits featuring sea turtles and the wildlife of Gray's Reef - a National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia Coast. The second exhibit, River Scout, also reflects regional environments. It features an overhead river where visitors can see North American fish from the bottom up. In addition to local specimens, tanks display piranha, electric fish, and other unusual freshwater life. The third section of the aquarium, Cold Water Quest, features animals from the polar regions of the world and contains most of the mammals in the aquarium's collection. This exhibit includes beluga whales in the aquarium's second largest tank, California sea lions, and African black-footed penguins. The fourth and most impressive exhibit, entitled Ocean Voyager, includes the vast majority of the aquarium's water and almost 100,000 fish. This exhibit is designed to feature the life of the Meso-American Barrier Reef, and showcases the aquarium's whale sharks, as well as a 100 foot underwater tunnel and the world's second largest viewing window. The final exhibit takes an artistic turn, as the Tropical Diver exhibit features many curious and haunting forms of aquatic life including a living reef with live coral. The aquarium also features a "4D" movie and other minor attractions.
According to Aquarium founder Bernard Marcus, the Aquarium's conservation and environmental mission is just as important as its status as an attraction. Long before opening, the Aquarium was already working with Georgia Tech and Georgia State University 12 in Atlanta and the University of Georgia in Athens to help save endangered species through education and research programs.
The acquisition of the male beluga whales, previously suffering in an inadequate environment, was hailed by Marcus as a prime example of the type of conservation activities the Aquarium should be involved with. Approximately 100 tarpon stranded in a tidal pool at Skidaway Island, off the Georgia coast, were rescued for the collection. Coral used in exhibits at the Aquarium is manmade in a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the University of the South Pacific, produced by suspending blocks of pumice over a reef near the village of Tagaqe, Fiji for eight months so that seaweeds and reef invertebrates could establish colonies.
The Georgia Aquarium, world’s largest at the time of its opening in November of 2005, encompasses 505,000 square feet of covered space. It holds eight million gallons of fresh and salt water and houses more than 100,000 fish and animals. The blue metal and glass exterior of the aquarium was designed to resemble a giant ship breaking through a wave. The ship’s hull appears to emerge from two large buildings that feature curved, flowing roofs that were designed to represent ocean swells.
With an accelerated 27-month schedule, the project timeline for the construction of the Aquarium was aggressive. To facilitate the phased construction activities that were essential to meeting the project schedule, two-ply asphalt BUR was installed over a lightweight concrete deck. This temporary roof allowed for expedited construction and the associated roof traffic. The final stage included installation of the light gray roofing system, which was selected to match the gray wall panels.
In addition to the massive tanks that are the core of the Aquarium, the facility includes the 16,400 square foot (1,520 m²) Oceans Ballroom - a banquet hall that can host events for up to 1100 seated or 1800 at a reception. The hall features two 10 by 28 foot (3 by 9 m) windows into the tanks housing the whale sharks and beluga whales. It can also be subdivided into three smaller spaces for events. Chef Wolfgang Puck's company will manage catering services for this facility.
The costs to build the Aquarium escalated well beyond Marcus' original $200 million gift. To complete the facility without scaling back plans, six companies - AirTran Airways, BellSouth, Georgia-Pacific, The Home Depot, Southern Company and SunTrust Banks - signed on as presenting sponsors for exhibits.
Originally proposed for the Atlantic Station development in Midtown, the Georgia Aquarium is located in downtown Atlanta, just north of Centennial Olympic Park in what has become the nexus for Atlanta tourist attractions. In addition to the Park and the Aquarium, within a short distance are the Georgia Dome 14, the Georgia World Congress Center, Philips Arena 15, CNN Center and the site proposed in Atlanta's bid for a new NASCAR museum.
The Coca-Cola Company donated 9 acres (400,000 m²) of land to the site and will build a new World of Coca-Cola attraction on the remaining property it owns adjacent to the Aquarium. The two facilities will share an 1800-space parking deck. Other improvements around the new site are being encouraged by Central Atlanta Progress, a group of local business leaders which has had a presence in Atlanta for several decades. In December 2004, a $300 million office and hotel development was announced for a nearby site. The complex will be named Allen Plaza in honor of former Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and will include office space for the Southern Company and accounting firm Ernst & Young.
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