Georgia Aquarium: The Wow Factor

Atlanta’s just-opened Georgia Aquarium is to most aquariums what Home Depot is to most hardware stores – vastly larger, far different from the norm and filled with a huge and diverse inventory.

By comparison, the 545,000 square feet of the Georgia Aquarium dwarf Tampa’s Florida Aquarium, which covers 200,000 square feet. Likewise, 100,000 fish swim in 8 million gallons of water at the Georgia Aquarium compared with 10,000 aquatic plants and Florida fish in a mere 1 million gallons of H20 at the Tampa Bay facility. The average visitor spends two and a half hours touring the Florida Aquarium. Early estimates put the typical visit to the Georgia Aquarium at four hours.

In short, the new Georgia Aquarium is the world’s largest, measured by gallons of water and number of fish. And fish, of course, are the point of the whole thing.

The reason for the “wow factor” at downtown Atlanta’s newest attraction is lanky, vivacious septuagenarian Bernie Marcus – retired co-founder of Home Depot – who gave $200 million of the fortune he made off of common hardware items to build this Aquarium as a thank you gift to Home Depot associates and customers.

When Marcus first announced his underwater intentions, nobody understood the scale of his dream. He’s used to it. In the early days of his home improvement empire, Marcus remembers, “I saw Home Depot with more than 1,500 stores. Everybody thought I was crazy. My guys used to say, ‘Please stop saying that because it’s never going to happen.'” But Marcus was right. “Today, we have over 1,950 stores.”

Likewise, when it came time to select an architect for the Georgia Aquarium, Marcus chose one – Atlanta’s TVS – that had never designed an aquarium because the experienced aquarium architects “kept coming up with the same aquarium that they’d built all over the world. They couldn’t see outside the box, and I said no. I need to have somebody that never built an aquarium before. I need to have someone that doesn’t know a damn thing about it.

“My fish guys thought I was crazy. They said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Well, we can hire the life support people. I need an architect that’s going to be on my wavelength, not on the normal wavelength. The aquarium architects all wanted to build a 60,000-square-foot aquarium. I said, ‘You guys don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I want to build something that never existed before.'”

Marcus stirred up his scientists again when he brought in a Hollywood producer. “I wanted to present this like a theater,” he declares, with the expansiveness of a veteran showman. “I wanted to make it like a stage production, with lighting and music. When we put [the producer] together with the fish people, it was a conflict to start with. Because the fish people are tuned into fish, period. They’re used to cement. Cement floors and cement walls and stark lighting. They’re not into show business. And I wanted this to be like going to the theater.

“Suddenly, everybody began to realize what we were doing, and everybody got on board. They all bought it because they all want people to understand fish. They’re into environmental issues, animal rights issues, preserving the oceans and the lakes and educating the public. I kept saying to them that if we could entertain the public, subliminally we could educate them, and so the entertainment came first and the education comes second. Now, everybody is absolutely on the same wavelength. Now they say, ‘People will actually want to come here over and over again because it’s such an experience.'”

Another First

One thing visitors will not experience at the Georgia Aquarium is something that happened to Marcus when he was visiting another aquarium: He was nearly knocked to the ground by children on a school field trip “running around, out of control.” This experience led Marcus to wonder how the Georgia Aquarium could separate children on school field trips from the general public.

The solution turned out to be an education program that – so far as Director of Education Services Brian Davis knows – is a first. Visits to the Georgia Aquarium by school children are far more than field trips. Kids enter through a separate, dedicated entrance especially for school groups. Teachers receive pre-trip activities for students to do prior to their Aquarium visit. Then kids spend two to two and a half hours of structured time in the Aquarium on a floor that’s completely separate from the public floor. Units are tailored for grades K-12. And teachers return to school with follow-up activities for their classes.

Davis and his staff developed the programs using the framework of the Georgia Performance Standards and national curriculum standards “so that it ties into the curriculum for students and teachers.”

There are classrooms and a dedicated lunchroom. “While they’re having lunch, they’re watching movies and enjoying images of aquatic ecosystems,” Davis says.

The Learning Loop consists of four themed galleries. One relates to the Georgia coast and includes a touch tank and a hands-on watershed map. The Freshwater Forest features a stream and uses a fishing hut as the classroom. A role-playing game teaches students how development can impact a stream.

In the Research Gallery, students don lab coats and assume the role of research scientists. In conjunction with this gallery, Davis’s staff is partnering with four universities – Georgia State University, the University of Georgia, Clark Atlanta University and the State University of West Georgia.

Finally, there’s the Coral Reef Gallery, which is adjacent to the Aqua Culture Laboratory.

“In the Aqua Culture Lab,” Davis says, “they’ll eventually be propagating or growing coral and some other species, and students get to talk directly to scientists in the lab.” Just before the Aquarium opened, Davis already had inquiries about the education program from schools in 19 different states.

When school’s out, education staffers will run weeklong summer day camps at the Aquarium and train teachers during a five-day journey along a Georgia river. The 20 teachers selected for each professional development course are treated to the experience free of charge.

On the Aquarium’s main floor, visitors can touch some of the inhabitants via touch tanks located in nearly every gallery. One touchable fish is the cow-nosed ray from the Georgia coast. “If you’ve never touched a cow-nosed ray,” says Executive Director Jeffery S. Swanagan, “they’re extremely soft. It’s like touching wet velvet.”

The vision, Swanagan says, is to be the world’s most engaging Aquarium. “We do that with our immensity. We do it by engaging you creatively and physically. The third way we engage you is through your heart. Some of our galleries are fun with laughter and noise. In others, you sit, relax, let your heart settle with symphonic music and enjoy the beauty and wonder of wildlife.”

Visitors who sign up for behind-the-scenes tours will get a look at an exceptionally well thought out animal health and conservation medicine program, which occupies 6,000 square feet beneath the Georgia Aquarium and includes a scrub room for veterinary surgeons, operating room, diagnostic equipment, water quality lab, pharmacy, exam room, intensive care unit, necropsy room and a state-of-the-art animal commissary where fish meals are prepared.

Research And Conservation

“We’ve very committed to research and conservation and have devoted a considerable amount of our time, talent and resources to make a difference for wildlife and wild places as well as the animals entrusted to our care,” says Swanagan, himself a trained science teacher and also an experienced diver who plunges into the water with the fish on Sundays to help clean the tanks.

While Swanagan’s favorite Aquarium dweller is the mandarin fish, many visitors undoubtedly will be mesmerized by Ralph and Norton, two whale sharks flown in from Taiwan that will be the size of school buses when they are full grown. Their private underwater home holds 6 million gallons of water.

Neighbors in a separate, 800,000-gallon tank are five beluga whales. The two male belugas – Niko and Gasper – came from a Mexico City amusement park and are joined by three females on breeding loan from an accredited American zoo and aquarium association.

The California sea lions residing at the Aquarium occupy both indoor and outdoor spaces. More cold water critters include African black-footed penguins, Pacific octopus, Japanese spider crabs and garibaldi damselfish. Among Georgia representatives who moved into the Aquarium are Georgia sea turtles. The world’s largest freshwater fish, the arapaima, stars in an exhibit of Amazonian fish. More river dwellers include piranha, arawana and the Asian small-clawed otter. In the coral reef are garden eels, reef squid, seahorses and yellow-head jawfish.

Marcus envisions the Georgia Aquarium being the catalyst that finally – once and for all – wakes up downtown Atlanta. “In 15 years, I visualize a transformation down here – the Aquarium is near CNN Center and Centennial Olympic Park – that no one can visualize. I see it in my mind’s eye like I saw Home Depot with more than 1,500 stores when everybody thought I was crazy.”

Marcus calls the ship-shaped Georgia Aquarium his yacht. Of his critics, Marcus, says, “If they had my money, they would have bought themselves a 200-foot or 300-foot yacht. I could have done that and probably accommodated 100 guests, but here on my yacht I’m talking about 2.5 million people a year. I like my yacht better.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features