Largest aquarium opens in Georgia

November 24, 2005|By JENNY JARVIE | JENNY JARVIE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

ATLANTA -- Bernie Marcus says he never much cared for fish, not until he decided to build an aquarium.

The 76-year-old billionaire, who made his fortune after co-founding Home Depot Inc., has invested $250 million in the biggest fish tank on the planet.

The Georgia Aquarium - which opened to the public yesterday - features the largest single tank in the world and four additional water exhibits that together will hold more than 120,000 fish in 8 million gallons of water.

It will showcase 500 species and is the first aquarium outside Asia to display whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world.

A golfer with no particular interest in the ocean, Marcus settled on an aquarium as the best way to thank Atlanta for helping his company become the nation's second-biggest retailer.

More than a symphony hall, an opera house or a museum, Marcus decided, an aquarium would appeal to do-it-yourselfers.

"I just couldn't come up with anything better," he said. "It fits our customer profile."

New fan of fish

Marcus, who has spent the past five years learning about beluga whales, largemouth sawfish and leafy sea dragons, said his interest in fish "has gone from a 4 to a 9 1/2 " on a scale of 10.

While all fish have peculiarities, Marcus said, he particularly loves the whale sharks. He cannot quite believe that the 20-foot-long fish "comes to you like a puppy dog and lets you put tiny fish in its mouth."

Ralph and Norton - juvenile whale sharks expected to grow to the size of school buses - are housed in the aquarium's mega-exhibit, "Ocean Voyager."

The sharks both have dark skin dappled with light-yellow dots and stripes. Ralph is the one always accompanied by five golden trevallies - bright yellow fish with black stripes - that swim in front of his huge, gaping mouth.

No one at the aquarium seems to know why the golden travallies swim with Ralph and not Norton.

"It could be because Ralph swims slower than Norton," said Jeffery Swanagan, the executive director of the aquarium. "Or it could be that Norton has bad breath."

Ralph and Norton pose little danger to the other fish in the 6.2-million-gallon tank.

They are "filter feeding" sharks. Every day, they are served 17 pounds of krill, plankton and tiny fish, which they sift through their gills.

As long as they are fed regularly, all the fish - even the hammerhead shark, the tank's most predatory fish - behave peacefully.

Visitors can observe the tank's inhabitants from a 100-foot-long underwater acrylic tunnel or from a viewing window that is 23 feet high by 61 feet wide.

The aquarium exhibits represent aquatic ecosystems from around the world.

Five ghostly white beluga whales are the main attraction in "Cold Water Quest," which includes giant Pacific octopus, California sea lions and garibaldi damselfish.

Freshwater exhibits have species from the rivers of Africa, South America, Asia and Georgia.

Another exhibit features local species - horseshoe crabs, sea stars and stingrays from the Georgia coast.

Going for size

Marcus has sought to outsize all of the nation's 37 accredited aquariums.

According to Kristen Vehrs, interim executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, everyone in the aquarium world is clamoring to see the Atlanta facility. "This is a big deal," she said. "They are really pushing the envelope."

Marcus deliberately sought out contractors who had not designed or built aquariums before, calculating that they would be more open to his ideas.

Shaped like a cruise ship breaking through a wave, the 500,000-square-foot Georgia Aquarium juts out of landlocked downtown Atlanta, on the north end of Centennial Olympic Park.

Inside, looming over the central atrium, is a gray wooden lighthouse - carrying a huge orange logo announcing the Georgia Explorer exhibit - and a waterfall cascading down artificial rocks.

In front of each gallery, corporate sponsors - which have helped the aquarium to open debt-free - are promoted in bold letters.

It could not be more different from the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, a classical Beaux Arts building that - until now - has housed the nation's largest aquarium since 1929.

The elegantly finished Shedd features brass doorframes encrusted with turtles, whelks and scallops and an octagonal rotunda decorated with terracotta tiles depicting crabs and lobsters.

Yet the Chicago aquarium has only 20,000 fish.

For Marcus, comparing the Georgia Aquarium to any other aquarium is like comparing a trip to Venice to a trip to Mars. "It's beyond anything," he said.

Marcus expects 2.5 million people to visit the aquarium in its first year - adult tickets are $22.75; children's $17 - but he predicts it will have a $1 billion economic impact on Atlanta and the state of Georgia in the next five years.

The aquarium has sold 60,000 annual passes and booked weddings, bar mitzvahs and high school proms in its ballroom, which has two aquarium-viewing windows and Wolfgang Puck as its caterer.

Yet not everyone wants to celebrate.

Some shark experts and animals rights groups oppose exhibiting whale sharks, arguing that they need more space than any aquarium can provide.

Georgia Aquarium officials insist that the whale sharks - bought from fishermen near Taiwan, where they would have been served for dinner - have plenty of room.

Ralph and Norton's tank is designed to hold as many as six whale sharks. Marcus eventually hopes to acquire a female, so he can breed whale sharks, which many consider an impossible feat.

"I love it when the experts tell me I can't do it," Marcus said. "I just love it."

Jenny Jarvie writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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