Unless this is your first time visiting our blog, you know that we LOVE aquariums. We will find time to visit them on 90% of our trips (when available). We were welcomed into the Georgia Aquarium recently to experience all that the sea has to offer…in Atlanta, and for a Behind the Scenes tour. It was pretty cool. Like, way cool. Like, “wow, did that whale shark just say hi to me?” sort of cool. And then there were some BIG issues. Going to be in the ATL anytime soon? Here’s what you’ll find if you invest half a day at the Georgia Aquarium.
Please note: do read ALL of our notes about the belugas and dolphins. Our words are strong, but they are valid observations about the Georgia Aquarium’s programs and what you’ll see while you’re there.
The fish – the Georgia Aquarium is set up in such a way that you can tackle it in sections. You enter and immediately get to choose what’s most important to you and then tackle it, and then each section loops back around to the main, grand foyer. We like to start with the Tropical Diver area and then move across to the River Scout area. The river section is one of our favorite spots at the Georgia Aquarium due to the amazing overhead river. As you walk along, you are immersed in the river above and to the sides. It’s just so cool and the kids love the tunnels and portholes they can play in to see a different view. The River Scout section finishes with otters, our favorite animal.
Tip: most of the larger exhibits have wheelchair accessible viewing spots. If you’re traveling with somebody that needs this spot, feel confident in asking others to allow you access. If you’re NOT with somebody that needs the accessible viewing, be thoughtful and keep it clear for others.
Tip 2: if you’re new to outings with a guest in a wheelchair, ask them or their parents how best to approach making the day fun for everybody. Don’t assume that the person or their caregiver wants to utilize all of the wheelchair accessible options, but also don’t move through things so fast that your friends or family get left behind.
The cetaceans – the Coldwater Quest section is home to several non-fish friends. The sea otters and penguins seem happy enough, and the penguin exhibit is actually really nifty, but the larger creatures give a solid impression of melancholy confinement. The Belugas… they’re large, they’re smart and they’re in a very small tank. While you’re standing there observing them, they LOOK like they want to be free and frolicking. The belugas swim up and down and round the tank, seemingly searching for a way out from the ice field. Their faces look happy, I mean, they’re belugas and that’s what make them adorable and such an attraction, but they shouldn’t be an attraction in an environment like this.
Note: on the Behind the Scene’s tour we participated in we got to see the top of the beluga tank and get an un-distorted view of its actual size. The whales are right to be pacing, as the tank is no larger than one found at a small zoo in Tacoma, Washington…where one beluga died and the other was shipped off to a larger aquarium.
Interesting sad fact: Beethoven, the above mentioned beluga from the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington, was shipped to San Antonio after his tank-mate died… and then a year later was shipped to the Georgia Aquarium where he still is. Interesting that the example we use above regarding tank size and impact on the animals is now one of the residents here.
Dolphin Tales, the show, is very popular and runs several times per day. It’s sad that the Georgia Aquarium has opted for a theatrical presentation with dolphins as cast members. If the aquarium rescued the dolphins and they’re not able to live in the wild, the Georgia Aquarium should be using the large captive audience to teach about dolphins and their plight in the wild and what scientists have learned by studying them. This show doesn’t even begin to show that the Georgia Aquarium values its dolphins or sees them as anything more than an attraction.
The story of the show FOCUSES on the Star Spinner and his lost ship. There are songs almost continually with random acrobatics from the dolphin trainers… assisted by dolphins. Percentage of dolphin involvement in show: 35% maybe. How worth your family’s time is the dolphin show on a scale of 1-10: 1. How upset should you be that the Georgia Aquarium is capitalizing on captivity of these brilliant, playful, caring, family oriented creatures: extremely.
Note: a guest services employee told me that there may be a new dolphin show premiering next year. She gave no other information, but felt confident enough to share that. We did find a quote from the the Sr VP of Husbandry at the Georgia Aquarium stating in 2011 with the launch of the show:
“It matters that you walk away from the show and the aquarium and say, ‘Wow, I wonder if there is something more I should do or learn about?’ ” said Billy Hurley, chief animal officer and senior vice president of husbandry at Georgia Aquarium. “We hope that children more than anybody take that inspiration.” *source, AccessAtlanta.
I’m sorry, but you HOPE somebody is going to want to find out more after they watched a man in a cape covered in LED light sign songs? No. It’s the responsibility of the Georgia Aquarium to educate its guests and provide accurate information about the dolphins of the world. PS: we were inspired to learn more and weren’t able to find ANY information from the Georgia Aquarium about where their dolphins came from. We couldn’t even find sources outside of the GA to provide this information. Should we assume their being captured vs rescued from marine accidents?
Nice Moment: our nephew is in a wheel chair and really loves dolphins, and while we were observing them after the show, a team member came up to Matthew and gave him a plush dolphin. It was a very sweet gesture and was appreciated greatly. Matthew was so happy, we all forgot for a moment about the situation we’d just participated in.
Tip: dolphin trainers hang out after each show if you or your kids have questions. They’re very friendly and ready to chat.
Tip 2: if you want to just observe the dolphins, you don’t have to see the show. There is a viewing area where the show line queues up. **Please note: there’s no obvious information that’s clearly displayed in many areas so that the MANY people queuing up can learn about the dolphins or find out where they came from. There’s a tad bit of information, but it’s not large enough or prolific enough for guests to find out anything of importance.
The sharks – the reason we went to the Georgia Aquarium for the very first time was simply because of the Whale Sharks in the Ocean Voyager exhibit. Seriously. They’re incredible, huge animals that you don’t get to see except for a few places in the world. The exhibit is quite stunning. From the undersea tube with the moving sidewalk to the enormous observation room and other viewing areas, there is enough space for hundreds of visitors to enjoy the sight of sharks and rays.
Tip: if you have some small wild children that need to let out some energy, spend some time in the large observation room. There’s space to be a little wild, but then the dark will just calm them right down (hopefully).
Note: like with the dolphin exhibit, there isn’t a lot of obvious or easily accessible information about the whale sharks. The sight is so grand that guests are greatly distracted. There’s a major opportunity for the Georgia Aquarium to provide useful information to guests regarding the whale sharks, their habitat and what research the GA is actually doing while keeping the sharks in captivity.
Behind the Scenes – if you’re interested, there’s a pretty neat opportunity to see what’s up behind the scenes of the Georgia Aquarium. The tour takes you above the tanks and exposes the bowels of the aquarium. There are some places you visit that aren’t crazy exciting, such as the medical records room, the walk-in freezer… Odd and industrial as it was, we really enjoyed the top of the Tropical Diver area where we got to see massive water tanks periodically dump 800+ gallons of water into the top of the tank, thus simulating the motion of the ocean and adding fresh, clean water into the environment.
We also go to peek at several breeding programs at the Georgia Aquarium: penguins, coral and seahorses.
The penguin play pen was fun to see, as it’s where reallllllllly young penguins are learning to waddle and swim. It wasn’t glamorous at all, but it felt special to spy on them while so young and grey.
The seahorse breeding program wasn’t extremely visible as, you know, privacy and all, but it was interesting. Even though you’re behind the scenes, there are informational placards and signage around so that you can read about what you’re seeing and get a bit more back ground.
So, here’s something interesting: the Georgia Aquarium, along with other institutions, gets custody of all kinds of different corals when they go through customs. Example 1: somebody smuggles in live coral and it’s confiscated; it goes to the GA. Example 2: somebody is importing coral for a real reason, but their documents aren’t all in line; corals are confiscated and distributed to aquariums. The collection behind the scenes and the process for growing the corals are both really interesting.
The most impressive and amazing experience on the Behind the Scenes tour was the Whale Shark tank. It’s massive at 63 million gallons and as expansive as a football field.
Know what’s so cool about it? A bunch of things:
- You can arrange to dive or swim in the tank
- You can see how the animals are fed
- You’re blown away by the size of this indoor ocean
- The whale sharks actually come say hi to you and personally welcome you to the Georgia Aquarium.
This was the highlight for us. Hands down. The tour is worth booking for this part alone. Other highlights include:
NO CROWDS behind the scenesThe ice wall explaining beluga skin and blubber
The touch tanks at kid-level
And getting a sneak peek at the new sea lions being trained for their 2016 debut.
Dining – as with any sort of big attraction, like a zoo or theme park, food inside the Georgia Aquarium comes at a premium price. So much so, that getting some chicken tenders, a basic hotdog, a little fresh fruit, a milk and a soda cost us $27 (USD). Yeah, it was surprising, especially because there isn’t really a comfortable dining area. It’s super crowded and extremely loud. There is an upstairs dining area, but when you’ve got kids and food to transport, it’s not convenient.
Tip: if you’re a lunch packer or on a budget, take the time to bring your family’s grub. You can save a bundle this way and if you’ve got picky eaters, you’ve just saved yourself a headache. Thankfully, the Georgia Aquarium allows this.
Nearby Activities – the Georgia Aquarium is centrally located in downtown Atlanta. You can park in the garage ($10 as of Nov ’15) and enjoy the surrounding area after the aquarium. The World of Coke is across the lawn if you’re in the mood for a soda museum, but then out the doors and to the right is Centennial Park. This park is a great place to experience the pulse of Atlanta. There is an awesome playground, lawns, Olympic site memories and our favorite in the summer… HUNDREDS OF FOUNTAINS TO RUN THROUGH! The fountains aren’t an option in the fall/winter, but if you’re there in the summer, bring a change of clothes and enjoy running through the most awesome collection of fountains that shoot from the ground and spray everywhere. Beware: there are hundreds of other people that might enjoy this at any moment too…
Overall, we really really love most of it. The opportunities the aquarium has to change their offering, practices and how they educate are vast. In general, the establishment hasn’t even nudged the iceberg of information they could provide the public, and maybe the public doesn’t want to know anything. Unfortunately, it’s clear that the Georgia Aquarium is there for entertainment over education. If you’re a parent, talk to your kids about what they’ll see and be ready to answer questions. And hey, there’s nothing wrong with putting the GA crew on the spot. While you’re there, ask away and get the answers you need!
Have any other questions about our experience at the Georgia Aquarium? Send us a note or leave a comment below.
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”