Georgia Aquarium unveils new sea lion, dolphin presentations

In November, the staff at the Georgia Aquarium privately acknowledged the decade that attracted more than 22 million visitors to the downtown aquatic emporium.

Starting Thursday, visitors will experience the commemoration of the aquarium’s 10th anniversary with the unveiling of two new attractions — the SunTrust Pier 225 sea lion gallery and show and the AT&T Dolphin Celebration.

For fans of the doe-eyed California sea lions, it’s a welcome return.

In 2008, the aquarium relocated its pack of sea lions to other facilities when work began on the dolphin exhibit. The $40 million gallery has been constructed in the former SunTrust Georgia Explorer area, which closed in early 2015 and has been completely renovated with a curved tank of water (about 250,000 gallons) and four seating sections to accommodate an audience of 500.

Presentations lasting 15-20 minutes will take place three times per day; a few more are expected to be added in the busy summer months.

While the show is salted with tidbits including the amount of fish a sea lion consumes daily (40 pounds for 500-pound adults such as Nav and Diego and 13 pounds for 90-pound pups Jupiter and Scout) and why there is an influx of sea lion stranding (fish are going deeper into the ocean, forcing sea lions to dive deeper and go farther for food), there is also a genial entertainment aspect to the presentation.

Cutie-pie Scout is learning to wiggle, wave and spin on command, while 11-year-old Diego unleashes a throaty bellow to show how he “vocalizes.” All of the 14 sea lions in the exhibit — there will usually be about three to five participating in each show — have learned to hoist a flipper when a host asks for a show of hands of those with rescue animals.

“They love the audience participation and are engaged with that,” Will Elgar, director of animal training for pinnipeds at the Georgia Aquarium, said of the sea lions. “We want people to see they’re charismatic, but also for people to understand that they’re rescue animals. This is their second chance. If they were left in the wild, they wouldn’t be alive anymore.”

When Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot, gifted $250 million to open the aquarium, he was determined to create an attraction that was both educational and entertaining.

Since opening Nov. 23, 2005, the Georgia Aquarium has walked the tightrope between edifying and regaling, not wavering in its mission to inform, but also paying the bills with attraction admission.

Many felt that the AT&T Dolphin Tales show, which began five years ago and closed on Jan. 3 after 4,618 performances, leaned too much on kitsch with its garish presentation (remember the StarSpinner and his blinking cape?), emphasis on special effects and schmear of theatricality.

The revamped AT&T Dolphin Celebration still contains plenty of oomph — a musical score consisting of songs by Michael Jackson, Fall Out Boy and AC/DC (the use of “Thunderstruck” is the most clever reworking of the previous show) — and ooh-and-ahh-worthy acrobatics as the mammals leap in majestic arcs and engage in a symphony of splashing to purposely drench those seated in the first 10 rows.

But suitable additions to the 25-minute presentation include the spotlight on conservation (video of Marineland, the Florida marine animal park owned by the Georgia Aquarium, is highlighted) and mentions of elementary dolphin tidbits, such as their average body temperature and how they breathe.

Lisa Mignogna, director of zoological operations and animal training for dolphins, said she and a group of more than a dozen trainers worked for a year with the 13 dolphins to learn behaviors such as hitting musical cues (the sound levels were tested by acoustic specialists to ensure there was no disruption to the animals) and engaging in multiple buoy jumps.

During the show, which takes place three times a day, about eight trainers are stationed backstage to prep the animals and because the dolphins have different preferences (some like to jump, others to “relate” to the trainers), the show can be variable.

“People want to know how the animals are cared for and loved and how we do that. We want to educate guests about the beauty, grace and intelligence of dolphins,” Mignogna said. “We want to showcase the bond the trainers have with the dolphins and for the people to see them and fall in love and want to do their part to conserve.”

Click here to see a timeline of the Georgia Aquarium through the years.

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