Three years before the Georgia Aquarium opened, Bernie Marcus and then-aquarium director Jeff Swanagan spent seven months traveling to zoos, aquariums and practically every major attraction in the U.S. to see what worked and what didn’t, what they liked and what would prompt them, as visitors, not to return.
Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot who gifted $250 million to open the downtown aquatic institution, was determined to do things that had never been done before, to open an attraction that was both educational and entertaining.
“(Bernie) felt that there was nothing that we couldn’t accomplish. We changed an area (downtown) that was desolate, an area that you didn’t want to bring your family to, and had 3.6 million guests our first year. That’s unheard of,” said Joe Handy, senior vice president of guest experience and entertainment at the Georgia Aquarium — and also an original employee that Marcus plucked from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The aquarium, which opened Nov. 23, 2005, has ushered in about 22 million visitors its first decade. While the staff acknowledged the milestone privately, the public will experience the celebration throughout 2016.
Among the upgrades are tweaks to the AT&T Dolphin Tales show, which will, according to Handy, “shift to appeal to an older audience and focus on the animals rather than a character.” The Broadway-esque show opened in 2011.
The 4D Theater will also be refreshed with new technology and show films from a library of thousands, including kid-friendly fare such as Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
The theater will shutter in January and reopen in March.
But the most aww-inducing upgrade will be the return of sea lions, which the aquarium relocated to other facilities in 2008 when work began on the dolphin exhibit. The $40 million gallery is being built in the former SunTrust Georgia Explorer area, which closed in early 2015 for renovations.
They’ll join eight adult sea lions, including Diego, a 400-pounder who was part of the aquarium’s original sea lion group (rescued as a youngster after being found under a police car in Redondo Beach, Calif.).
Will Elgar, director of animal training for pinnipeds at the Georgia Aquarium, said the new exhibit is designed to be interactive — a live presentation will be included — to best highlight the characteristics of the animals.
“They’re very curious, like Labradors,” Elgar said of the whiskered, eared seals.
While it’s hard to deny the doe-eyed adorableness of the sea lions, it’s the Ocean Voyager area, with its 6.3 million gallons of water, several thousand fish, and quartets of manta rays and whale sharks (Trixie, Alice, Yushan and Taroko if you want to say hello) coasting behind massive glass windows, that tends to be a potent memory for most visitors.
The acquisition of the whale sharks in 2005 proved to be one of the aquarium’s headiest early challenges.
Four were relocated from Taiwan, where they were being fished for food, on a 35-hour-plus journey that included multiple blood sample and respiration checks.
Two of the sharks died in 2007, one from a hole in his stomach lining, possibly caused by the method of feeding at the time from a piece of PVC pipe.
Chris Coco, director of zoological operations, fish and invertebrates, acknowledges that there is still much to be learned about the whale sharks, which now are fed individual diets consisting of 15-20 pounds of krill, chopped squid and vitamins encased in gelatin three times daily. The whale sharks follow feeding ladles across the surface of the Ocean Voyager tank, collecting food as they glide forward.
Research is a priority at the Georgia Aquarium, even as it earns numerous kudos from Trip Advisor and USA Today as one of the top tourist attractions in the country.
“Without the whale sharks being here, all of these (visitors) would never see them. We’ve had whale sharks in Atlanta for 10 years, and you hope that people have gained an appreciation of them,” Coco said. “I know I have.”
One of the country’s most respected voices about marine science, Alistair Dove, is the director of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium and is currently focusing his efforts on the biology of the whale shark.
Dove and a team of five plan to head to Saint Helena island, a remote area in the South Atlantic Ocean, at the end of December to spend weeks putting out satellite tags to record movements on whale sharks in the wild, among other research (the aquarium’s Yushan is allowing the staff to draw blood, a technique Dove hopes to bring to the field to study the effects of pollution and the whale sharks’ sexual maturation).
“The kids get their minds blown when they see these animals here. They’re very receptive to learning about them,” Dove said. “The goal is a real-time science outreach. What we do in the field and what we do here are totally complementary.”
The aquarium staff is accustomed to vocal detractors, but they point to research as a necessity for keeping aquatic animals in captivity.
In its first decade, there have been several instances to provide ammunition to those who are opposed to aquariums: the loss of two whale sharks; the deaths of two calves born to beluga whale Maris, who herself died unexpectedly in October; the blocked importation of 18 captured beluga whales from Russia, among them.
But aquarium officials are firm in their convictions.
“We are looking to connect animals and people and (detractors) are looking to disconnect,” said Handy, the aquarium’s senior vice president of guest experience and entertainment.
He added, “It’s obviously a mourning process when we have a loss, but it is life, and there are going to be some losses. We spend more time with our animals than we do our families. When there is a loss, it rocks us. … We can only do what we can do. We are in the business of taking care of animals and not leaving them on their own. We have to be good stewards.”
As the Georgia Aquarium moves into its second decade of existence, Handy said some form of expansion is almost a guarantee — likely vertically rather than horizontally.
But for now, he’ll take a moment to reflect.
“I want people to remember that this (aquarium) came from an individual who had a dream and who realized his life wasn’t just about him,” Handy said of Marcus, who is chairman emeritus of the aquarium board. “That’s part of our DNA. I don’t want us to ever forget where we came from, but stay focused on where we’re going.”