Since it opened to continual massive crowds in late 2005, the world's largest aquarium has had Atlanta abuzz about its 8 million gallons of fresh and marine water, home to more than 100,000 animals representing 500 species from around the globe. The aquarium continues to add to its collection, including a 9-foot, 456-pound manta ray named Nandi, which joined the aquarium in 2008. A $110-million dolphin exhibit opening is planned for 2011 and will include a 1.3-million-gallon exhibit, offering dolphin encounters, viewing windows, and dolphin shows.
The aquarium includes five stunning permanent exhibits, including Cold Water Quest, Georgia Explorer, Ocean Voyager, River Scout, and Tropical Diver, each featuring inhabitants of those environments. Visitors are fascinated by the ghostly beluga whales in the Cold Water Quest, along with Australian weedy sea dragons, giant Pacific octopus, and Japanese spider crabs. Georgia Explorer includes an interactive gallery with touch pools of horseshoe crabs, sea stars, stingrays, and shrimp. See a loggerhead sea turtle and right whales, which live just off the Georgia coast. Feel like a scuba diver in a sea of fish as you walk through an acrylic tunnel surrounded by water and creatures in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. Watch out for the gigantic whale sharks that call this tunnel home; they'll swim right over your head. River Scout highlights wildlife of rivers from Georgia to Asia, including a large exhibit of Amazonian fish. See electric fish from Africa and get up close and personal with a toothy piranha. Kids delight at the playful Asian small-clawed otters that spend their days playing and eating. Tropical coral reefs round out the exhibit Tropical Diver, where kids love to look for "Nemo" among the hundreds of sea creatures that pop in and out among the reef. Three jellyfish exhibits are also located here, performing a mesmerizing watery ballet.
A number of behind-the-scenes tours are available, including Journey with Gentle Giants, an opportunity to swim or scuba-dive with whale sharks and tons of other fish in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. Fees are steep: $190 for swimmers and $290 for certified divers, but where else could you have this experience in a metropolitan setting? The swim/dive tour is limited to six people a day and reservations are booked months ahead, so plan early. For another $50 you can purchase a DVD of yourself swimming with the fishes to take home to impress friends and family. Other tours are less expensive and allow guests to visit areas typically off-limits to see how these creatures are cared for by staff.
While numbers have leveled out since the opening year, crowds are still big enough that tickets are issued based on your preferred time to enter the aquarium. Tickets to the 4-D theater are a few bucks extra, or for an additional $50, visitors can experience a behind-the-scenes tour. Advance booking online is highly recommended. Café Aquaria serves grilled items, pasta, pizza, salads, sandwiches, and more.
If you plan to see the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium, a Pemberton Pass will save you a few bucks. In addition, the two attractions share a huge covered parking garage with a $10 fee. Pemberton Place includes an expansive lawn, perfect for a picnic, as well as a cafe and public restrooms.
Water, Water Everywhere
Folks in Atlanta were pretty sure the Georgia Aquarium would be a big hit, but even the most optimistic about this world-class project underestimated the numbers of people who'd be clamoring to see it. Nine months after its opening in November 2005, the world's largest indoor aquarium was already welcoming its three-millionth visitor.
Aquarium benefactor Bernie Marcus had it pegged pretty well, though -- he predicted the facility would welcome three million people within its first year. The aquarium is a gift to the people of Georgia from Marcus, cofounder of Home Depot, and his wife, Billi, through the Marcus Foundation.
The initial crowds were so huge, sales of annual memberships were actually suspended because management feared that hordes of return visitors would overwhelm their ability to welcome first-time guests. Of the first three million visitors, more than 50,000 were Atlanta-area teachers and students, who were among the earliest supporters of the facility. The aquarium has now served as Atlanta's second-largest tourism boost since the Centennial Olympic Games were held here in 1996.
Since the opening, aquarium visitors and staff have found reason to both celebrate and mourn. From an announcement of $14 million in building improvements less than a year after opening to the 2007 death of Gasper, one of two beluga whales housed here, the Georgia Aquarium continues to draw international attention.