Don’t expect this to be a very regular feature, as I’m not the type that gets to go out often, especially so far from home, buuuut…since I was recently on vacation, I went to the world’s largest aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia. I figured I might as well give it a review. Also trying out the idea of giving my reviews a “title card” for color; make sure to tell me whether you like the idea or not!
The first thing you’ll notice about the Georgia Aquarium is that it’s smack dab in the middle of plenty of other attractions and stops, including the World of Coca-Cola and the Centennial Olympic Park (which is very pretty this time of year, I might add). This is obviously a plus for those who wish to plan a big day trip to Atlanta and aren’t constrained by the looming threat of heavy rain as I was. As for the aquarium itself, it is a large structure with a central food court and gathering area with exhibits that radiate out from said area. While my trip was taken counter-clockwise, and thus will be reflected that way, but this obviously won’t reflect every trek through the location. But I digress…
First off, there’s Tropical Diver. As its name implies, it’s a tropical-themed section of the aquarium, filled with warm water species including garden eels, butterflyfish, clownfish of several species, and the eccentric-looking wobbegong shark. The main draw of the section is a large, coral and anemone-coated rockface filled with numerous fish and topped off with an artificial wave/current generator for the benefit of the reef residents. While I’ve seen plenty of such setups before, I still always find a simplistic enjoyment in watching the life of a coral reef with all its hussle and bussle.
One thing you will notice right off the bat in Tropical Diver is that you will see many signs telling you not to use your camera flash in certain exhibits for the comfort of photosensitive animals therein; apparently, this isn’t a rule followed that often, as there wee some staff members policing these areas. One odd exception was the corridor containing tanks with three species of jellyfish…of course, that area was rather sparsely-populated anyway. I guess I’m odd in actually liking watching jellies float and flutter around.
Most people will, obviously, come for Home Depot-sponsored Ocean Voyager, a huge tank with several viewing ports and a walk-through tunnel. Many species, including giant groupers, porkfish, and sawfish, all swim around the structure. Most numerous of all are the sharks and rays, ranging from two species of both wobbegongs (bringing the ‘gong species count for the aquarium up to a total of 3) and guitarfish, manta rays, Southern stingrays, zebra sharks, great hammerheads, and of course, the main attraction of the aquarium: Rhincodon typus, the whale shark.
These pacifistic planktonivores are pretty much the main reason Ocean Voyager (and, arguably, the Georgia Aquarium as a whole) is so popular. Few aquariums have them for the sole reason that they’re so huge, and the GA is the only one outside of Asia to do so. Seeing them in person is a thing of beauty. Even without the whale sharks, though, the Georgia Aquarium is easily one of the better examples of the “walk through the ocean!” gimmick I’ve seen.
If you’re silly and going counter-clockwise like I am, next up is Cold Water Quest. Centered around the haunting replica of the skeleton of a whale bordered with Inuit carvings, this section is a display of various cold water (duh) wildlife. With a Pacific kelp forest containing wolf eels, swellsharks, garibaldis, and other California critters, a deep-sea tank with snipefish, ratfish, and the large Japanese spider crabs, features for weedy and leafy sea dragons, and the Pacific giant octopus, amongst other things. The variety here is nice, and some of the more odd creatures such as the quirky ratfish are sure to be a draw.
Of course, for most people, the draw to the exhibit will be the creatures with “star power”, of which there are three: the African black-footed penguin, California sea otter, and beluga whale. There is also a scheduled dolphin exhibit, but as of my visit it hadn’t been opened to the public.
If you haven’t gotten cold feet about the museum after the last set of exhibits, you can go past an indoor waterfall and into the tangled pillars patterned to resemble tree trunks and roots as you wind your way into River Scout. If you like cichlids, discus, and other popular aquarium-stockers, want to get up close and personal to a piranha or electric eel, would like to get a look at those craaazy morymids (or elephantnose fish, for you non-bio fans,) haven’t already seen a leucistic American alligator like I had twice already before my trip, like cute critters such as Asian small-clawed otters, or want to see poison dart frogs, this exhibit has your name written all over it. Oh, and then there’s the fact that above you there is a Mississippi River tank, with sturgeons, spotted and alligator gar, and blue catfish, amongst other species, swimming all right overhead. And that’s pretty damn cool, if you ask me.
Last but not least, there’s Georgia Explorer, a look at local critters you hadn’t already seen in River Scout, as well as the invasive lionfish. Here, you can see sea turtles, shrimp, Southern stingrays, and things that don’t begin with S, such as the bonnethead sharks and cownose rays in the touch pool. It’s a nice little finale (or start, depending on which way you head), but it’s a bit aimed on the “kid-friendly” side, and seems almost a bit like an afterthought compared to, say, the Mississippi River section of the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans.
Finally, there’s Planet Shark, which you have to pay extra for. It’s…very dark. And you can’t use your camera in it. At all. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t think it’s worth the extra cash you shell out for it. You get some fossil shark teeth, a life-size model whale shark, a few interactives, a chart on how to avoid a shark attack, a frozen mako shark and tuna, a “who’s the real monster?” display with model sharks in nets, a diorama of confiscated shark fins in buckets, and some shark-made products.
Variety: 10/10. Lots of species to see, including some rather eccentric and enigmatic ones.
Cleanliness: 9/10. Some scraped glass here and there, and I did have the misfortune of being right in front of a defecating grouper in the Ocean Voyager, but the latter was more my bad timing than the aquarium’s fault.
Animal Care: 9/10. Again, I saw some problems, such as fin-nipping with some of the more aggressive schoolers and some shorefish attacking and eating a clam in a touch pool, but these are more nature than aquarium-caused problems.
Aesthetics: 10/10. Excellent layout, such as having rocky walls for Cold Water Quest and the tree root scheme of River Scout.
Extras: 5/10. Meh. Whether you see Planet Shark is entirely up to you, your time, and your wallet, but personally I’d say it’s decidedly average.
Crowd Control: 2/10. The only big failing of the Georgia Aquarium is that the crowds are absolutely horrid. I know the fact that they have people from all over the world (quite literally), but really, some order would be nice.
Overall: 8/10. The world’s largest aquarium is also one of the better ones I’ve seen. If you have the time and the money, I’d say give it a visit.