Today I took Susan to the Georgia Aquarium for her birthday. Though she doesn’t usually like to take MARTA, tonight downtown they were having the Georgia high school football playoffs at the Dome, a Thrashers game at Philips Arena, and the Georgia/Georgia Tech game further uptown, so we opted for public transit. The aquarium is a hike from MARTA, at least a 15 minute walk, at the northwest corner of Centennial Park. Even though I had reserved the tickets before the aquarium opened, we still had to stand in line (though there was a second line for walk-up tickets that was longer) to get through security. I was stopped because I had my swiss army knife on my keychain and no knives or guns are allowed. I tried to talk the guard into letting me go through but she said my only choices were to throw it away, take it back to my car (40 minutes away), or hide it somewhere outside. I finally decided to hide it and picked a spot just outside the aquarium. I came back and thought I could have probably just stuck it in my shoe and she’d have never known the difference. Anyway, it was good hiding spot I guess because it was still there when I got out.
Once inside you don’t see fish, but just huge swarming masses of people. The central room feels like a very crowded mall and the department stores are all different exhibits off of that central atrium.
The first place we went was Tropical Diver: The Coral Kingdom. The first exhibit in that area was a tank of garden eels poking out from their holes in the sand a few inches. There were tons of people crowded at the glass and it takes a while just to get in position to see anything. Because the eels live on the bottom, you have to be right up at the glass to see them. The eels are neat, but tiny, about the size of a pencil. After that they had the sea nettles and other jellyfish (they just call them jellies). These were neat to watch with a tank for each kind. They had loud classical music playing which might have created a nice relaxing ambience if not for the throngs of people and everyone talking loudly to be heard over the music. I think they definitely are letting too many people into the aquarium. It seems to me they would be better off letting in fewer people so the experience would be better rather than letting the maximum number of people arrive. I don’t think they are acknowledging this though because they were still selling tickets to people who had not made reservations (though at 4:50 they were selling 6:00 tickets). The biggest exhibit in this area is a coral reef which had tons of colorful fish swimming around. The tank was vertical but then curved over your head so you could look up into a shallow part of the tank. They had waves and bright lights coming down through the water. We skipped some of the smaller tanks because there was no way to get a spot close enough to see. I thought maybe we had just hit a knot of people, but we came back later and it was just as crowded there.
Next we went to Coldwater Quest: The Chilly Unknown. One writer at the paper said this was the best exhibit because it features sea otters, sea lions, penguins, and the beluga whales. That’s probably true. The belugas are very interesting and they are so white! Their tank didn’t seem all that big for the four belugas that we saw. There are two males that came from Mexico, plus some females from New Jersey. Gasper is easy to pick out by his damaged skin, but they say that is getting better since he arrived in Atlanta. In this area we also saw the leafy sea horse, an amazing sea horse that looks like it has sprouted leaves. In the same tank there are also less spectacular, but still interesting, weedy sea horses. The sea otters were pretty active and would swim on their backs and wave their paws (which look more like flippers). They have it set up so that you can view them from underwater, then from above the water and then again from the land side of their habitat. You can go outside to see the sea lions, but you can also see them just as well (or better really) from inside.
Next up was Ocean Voyager: Journey With Giants. This exhibit snakes around and through the largest aquarium tank in the world, where the whale sharks live. They have a tunnel that goes along the bottom of the tank and features a moving sidewalk. Due to the number of people the moving sidewalk wasn’t working (I think; could have been mechanical reasons). The whale sharks are very big, but not enormous. They are also very pretty as they glide by with their white spots. The tank is so big that you can’t see all the way across, so they sort of come out of the gloom and just get bigger and bigger. And they don’t just have whale sharks, there are tons of other fish in that tank. There are huge schools of yellow fish (golden trevally) that swarm around the bigger fish (the whale sharks and groupers) along with hammerhead sharks, saw fish, bow-mouthed guitarfish (a combination of ray and shark), and many others. They have concave windows so you can sit in the window and have water and fish all around you. Then, at the end, they have the largest aquarium window in the world that seems like a movie screen showing the ocean. They have it set up like a small theater so you can just sit and watch as long as you want.
The last area we visted was River Scout: Freshwater Mysteries. This was probably the smallest exhibit. It had a lot of tanks of colorful or unusual freshwater fish along with an area that had river otters (smaller than sea otters and more adapted to land than water). Many of these tanks also curved over your head so you could see the bottoms of fish swimming over you. There were a couple of catfish that looked dead, but they could have just been camped out on the bottom (or top).
We opted not to visit the fifth exhibit area, Georgia Explorer: Discover Our Coast. It looked like it was designed for kids and we had had enough of children at this point. We also did not eat at the cafe, see the ballroom, or watch the movie. We were there for about an hour and a half. We exited through the gift shop which is decent, but I didn’t think there was a great selection of clothes: They only have a few different t-shirts for men.
I definitely enjoyed the visit to the aquarium and I know that everyone will enjoy it when Mom takes us there in December. If it is as crowded the day we go we will have a hard time keeping everyone together. Also make sure you don’t bring a pocket knife (or guns). One thing I thought that was kind of disappointing was the lack of information about the different kinds of fish. Maybe as the crowds thin out they will be able to have people explain things at each exhibit, but that won’t work for now. Some museums have a lot of places to watch short videos, or have learning stations which I guess could be added later. The key thing is to have tons of fish, and they certainly have those. The cross-section of people is also interesting. There are people from all over the place and we heard a lot of foreign languges. It is really a world-class aquarium.