|Date opened||November 23, 2005|
|Location||Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.|
|No. of animals||More than 100,000|
|No. of species||700|
|Volume of largest tank||6.3 million US gallons (24,000 m3)|
|Total volume of tanks||More than 10 million US gallons (38,000 m3)|
|Annual visitors||2.4 Million (2016)|
The Georgia Aquarium is a public aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. It houses more than a hundred thousand animals and represents several thousand species, all of which reside in 10 million US gallons (38,000 m3) of marine and salt water. It was the largest aquarium in the world from its opening in 2005 until 2012, when it was surpassed by Marine Life Park in Singapore.
A $250 million donation from businessman Bernard Marcus's foundation provided the bulk of the money needed to build and stock the new facility.
In November 2001, Bernard Marcus announced his vision of presenting Atlanta with an aquarium that would encourage both education and economic growth. After visiting 56 aquariums in 13 countries with his wife, Billi, he donated $250 million toward what was to become Georgia Aquarium. Corporate contributions totaling an additional $40 million allowed the aquarium to open debt-free.
Jeff Swanagan, the Aquarium's founding president and executive director until 2008, is largely credited with the creation of the aquarium, from the design of the structure to the procurement of animals for the exhibits.
The aquarium is in downtown Atlanta on land donated by The Coca-Cola Company, just north of Centennial Olympic Park and near Mercedes Benz Stadium, the Georgia World Congress Center, State Farm Arena, and CNN Center. Its blue metal-and-glass exterior is meant to evoke a giant ark breaking through a wave. The world's largest when it opened in November 2005. At that time the aquarium encompassed 550,000 square feet (5.1 ha; 13 acres) of covered space and its exhibits held 8,000,000 US gallons (30,000,000 l) of fresh and salt water. Subsequent additions to the collection and redesign of some habitats have increased the total water held to 10,000,000 US gallons (38,000,000 l).
After 27 months of construction, the aquarium opened on November 21, 2005, with 60 animal habitats. Though the non-profit aquarium's admission charges are among the highest in the United States, attendance has far exceeded expectations, with 1 million visitors in the first 100 days, 3 million by August 2006, 5 million by May 2007, and 10 million by June 2009. The aquarium is part of the Smithsonian Affiliations program.
The Georgia Aquarium contains more than one hundred thousand animals, representing 700 species of fish and other sea creatures.
The aquarium is the only institution outside of Asia that houses whale sharks, which are kept in a 6.3 million US gallons (24,000 m3) exhibit—the aquarium as a whole was designed around the whale shark exhibit. Their importation from Taiwan (by air, truck and boat) had never been attempted previously. They were taken from Taiwan's annual fishing kill quota, under which they would have been eaten had they not been purchased by the aquarium. The aquarium's most famous specimens were four young whale sharks from Taiwan named Ralph, Norton, Alice, and Trixie, after the primary characters from The Honeymooners. Ralph and Norton died in 2007 but that same year the aquarium received two more whale sharks ("Taroko", commemorating Taroko Gorge National Park, and "Yushan" after Taiwan's Jade Mountain) just before a ban on capture of that species took effect.
A manta ray, Nandi, that had been accidentally caught in nets protecting the South African coast from sharks, joined the Ocean Voyager exhibit in 2008 as the first manta ray on display in the country; the aquarium is one of only four sites in the world displaying one. A second manta ray, Tallulah, was added in September 2009, joined in 2010 by female named Billi, and in 2012 by a male. The animals range in size from 10–13 ft wingspans (3 - 4 meters).
The aquarium has also been home to as many as five 11-foot (3 m) beluga whales at once. Males Nico and Gasper, acquired from an amusement park in Mexico, were joined by three females on breeding loan from the New York Aquarium: Marina, Natasha and Natasha's daughter, Maris. After Gasper and Marina died in 2007, the belugas were transferred to SeaWorld San Antonio, where Nico died in 2009. In 2010, Maris and a new male, Beethoven, were returned to the Georgia Aquarium while Natasha remains with a potential mate in San Antonio. Two young belugas, Grayson (male) and Qinu (female), also from San Antonio, were added in November 2010. Before transferring to the Shedd Aquarium in 2014, Beethoven fathered calves with Maris in 2012 and 2015, neither of which survived. Maris died of a heart defect in 2015. In 2016, Grayson was sent to Shedd Aquarium while SeaWorld Orlando's Aurek and Maple and Shedd Aquarium's Nunavik arrived on loan at Georgia Aquarium. In June 2017, Georgia Aquarium announced that Qinu was pregnant with her first calf, sired by Aurek, and was due in the fall of 2017. In September 2017, Aurek was transferred to Shedd Aquarium on a breeding loan. On November 8, 2017, the aquarium announced that Qinu's calf had died from complications during birth.
In 2012, the beluga whale Maris gave birth to a female calf. After less than a week, the calf, who was born underweight, died. Although mortality rates of calves born to first time mothers is extremely high, even in wild populations, Maris's second calf—born on Mother's Day in 2015—would survive less than a month. Maris herself died in October of the same year, reigniting the debate as to whether the captive beluga breeding program was humane or successful.
In 2015, the aquarium applied to import 18 belugas from Russia; it had previously placed an order for their capture and planned to send them on breeding loans to partnered parks such as Shedd Aquarium and SeaWorld, though SeaWorld ultimately opted out of the agreement. However, the permit was denied by the National Marine Fisheries Service, prompting Georgia Aquarium to sue. In September 2015, a federal district court ruled that "Georgia Aquarium failed to demonstrate that its permit would not result in the taking of additional animals beyond those authorized by the permit", and that the denial would stand.
The aquarium's animals are displayed in seven galleries and exhibits: Tropical Diver, Ocean Voyager, Cold Water Quest, River Scout, Dolphin Celebration, Pier 225, and Aquanaut Adventure: A Discovery Zone. Each corresponds to a specific environment.
The first exhibit, Southern Company River Scout, reflects regional environments. It features an overhead river where visitors can see North American fish from the bottom up. In addition to local specimens, this exhibit displays piranha, electric eel, and other unusual freshwater life.
The second section of the aquarium, Cold Water Quest, features animals from the polar and temperate regions of the world and contains most of the mammal species in the aquarium's collection. This exhibit includes beluga whales in a 760,000 US gallons (2,900,000 L) tank, sea otter, Japanese spider crab, weedy sea dragon, and African penguin.
The largest exhibit, Ocean Voyager built by Home Depot, contains 6.3-million-U.S.-gallon (24,000,000 l) of water and several thousand fish. It measures 284 ft × 126 ft (87 m × 38 m) and the depth ranges between 20 and 30 ft (6.1 and 9.1 m), making it the largest indoor aquatic habitat in the world. This exhibit is designed to feature the life of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System and showcases the aquarium's whale sharks, as well as a 100 ft (30 m) underwater tunnel and one of the world's largest viewing windows.
The fourth exhibit, Tropical Diver, features mainly Indo-Pacific tropical fish. The largest habitat in the exhibit is a 164,000-US-gallon (620,000 L) reef featuring many species of fish. The aquarium also cultivates its own live coral, some of which can be seen on this large reef. Other animals in this gallery include seahorses, garden eel, jellyfish, clownfish, Bluespotted ribbontail ray, shrimp, lobsters, Red lionfish, and many other tropical fishes.
The Suntrust Georgia Explorer gallery included a number of fish native to Georgia and areas off the coast of Georgia. It is the aquarium's only former exhibit, having been closed in 2015 to make way for the Suntrust Pier 225.
The AT&T Dolphin Celebration gallery opened in April 2011 behind Cold Water Quest and River Scout. This is the first of the aquarium's newer additions and houses the indoor dolphin stadium. The aquarium houses thirteen bottlenose dolphins, though this number fluctuates from time to time. The show lasts about 20 to 30 minutes and includes an informative/educational videos about the dolphins 30 minutes before the show. Admission to the AT&T Dolphin Celebration show is included in general admission. At 1,800,000 US gallons (6,800,000 L) this gallery is the second largest exhibit, only after Ocean voyager.
The seventh exhibit, Suntrust Pier 22 gallery is exclusive to California sea lions. Among the six individuals that are housed, two individuals named Jupiter and Neptune were rescued in the 2015 mass sea lion stranding in California. This exhibit also offers scheduled presentations about the sealions. These presentations have a maximum seating capacity of 560 and because of this the aquarium recommends visitors to come roughly 30 - 45 minutes before each show.
The eighth exhibit, Aquanaut Adventure: A Discovery Zone, is Georgia Aquarium's newest gallery containing several smaller exhibits and multiple hands-on activities, including an augmented reality scavenger hunt using the aquarium's mobile app.
The aquarium also features a "4D" movie and a virtual reality simulator which takes guests on a trip through prehistoric seas (for an additional fee).
Also, in 2009, the "Titanic Aquatic" exhibit opened, which features a walk-through of what it was like on the ship RMS Titanic. The exhibit was at the aquarium until September 7, 2009. The Georgia Aquarium then hosted the world debut of Planet Shark: Predator or Prey: The Exhibition. The exhibit focused on dispelling myths and sharing facts to help create a better understanding of sharks. It was open through April 2011 and featured shark jaws, teeth and fossils, full-scale shark models made from real specimens and more.
Research and conservation
According to 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 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. Roughly 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 man-made 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 aquarium is involved in several research initiatives that focus on whale sharks in the Yucatán Peninsula, beluga whales in Alaska, penguins in South Africa, manatees in Quintana Roo, Mexico, loggerhead sea turtles on the Georgia coast, and spotted eagle rays in Sarasota, Florida.
Its newest research project centers on bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon. These animals serve as indicators of environmental health because they are permanent residents of the lagoon and are at the top of the food chain. The aquarium is partnering with Florida Atlantic University and the federal government to monitor the health of these animals as well as identify potential threats from pollution and emerging infectious diseases.
New facilities and programs
In May 2008, the aquarium announced plans to build a $110 million expansion for a new dolphin exhibit. The expansion covers 84,000 square feet (7,800 m2) and contains 1.8 million US gallons (6,800,000 l) of water. Located on the west side of the facility, the exhibit features space for live presentations, observation windows, and opportunities for visitors to interact with animals.
Construction began later in 2008 and was completed in late 2010. During part of the construction, the aquarium's three beluga whales were temporarily relocated to SeaWorld San Antonio. Beluga whales are very sensitive to sound, and while officials had not noted any excessive amounts of stress, it was decided to remove them anyway and eliminate the possibility. Unexpectedly, one of the three belugas, Nico, died at SeaWorld on October 31, 2009; a preliminary necropsy was unable to determine if Nico's death was caused by the move or by something else.
On January 1, 2011, the aquarium purchased Marineland of Florida for a reported $9.1 million. The seller was Jim Jacoby, a metro Atlanta developer and member of the Georgia Aquarium board of directors, who bought the park in 2004 and re-developed it.
In 2018, the aquarium announced its largest expansion to date, a $100m, 45,000-square-foot endeavor featuring a new 1 million US gallons (3,800,000 L) saltwater shark gallery and redesigned main entrance, planned to be completed in late Fall 2020. Some animals which will be housed in this exhibit include Scalloped hammerhead sharks, Silvertip shark, Sandbar shark, Sand tiger shark and the tiger shark. A temporary entrance will be constructed by the end of 2018 to facilitate construction.
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