Georgia Aquarium works at being the world's biggest

Whale sharks - largest of fish - helped attract 3 million in 1st year

November 24, 2006|By Dahleen Glanton | Dahleen Glanton,Chicago Tribune

ATLANTA -- The gigantic whale sharks glide through their 6 million-gallon pool with the grace of superstars.

As the largest fish in the ocean, they sail through the vast waters with a uniqueness bestowed by nature. But at the Georgia Aquarium, the whale sharks seemingly dance to a routine of swimming laps, apparently oblivious to the thousands of people who peer from an acrylic tunnel waiting to get a glimpse of them.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the largest indoor aquarium in the world, with more than 8 million gallons of water and more than 100,000 aquatic animals.

This month as the Georgia Aquarium celebrates its first anniversary, it can boast another achievement - drawing more than 3 million people during its first year of operation. Most of it can be attributed to Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie - named for the characters from the TV show The Honeymooners - who reside in Atlanta, the only place other than Japan and Taiwan where whale sharks are on exhibit.

Ray Davis, vice president of zoological operations at the aquarium, gets excited just talking about the whale sharks. He recognizes each as it passes and calls it by name. The white dots on their bodies are like fingerprints, he said, making each unique.

"This is way cool," Davis said as he stood on a bridge overlooking the 30-foot-deep pool.

It takes 200 man-hours a month just to dive in and clean the exhibit. The life-support team - which controls the huge computerized filtration system in the tank - is on duty around the clock. Four biologists are assigned to feed the whale sharks and the 80,000 fish that swim alongside them. In one year, the four sharks consume 12,000 pounds of imported krill, squid and supplements.

The whale sharks, which can grow to 40 feet long, are not there just for entertainment. Because so few are in captivity, not much is known about them. The Georgia Aquarium is the first organization to perform a physical exam on whale sharks, including taking blood samples.

In 12 months, scientists have begun to learn about the genetic makeup of the animals and are beginning to explore hormonal changes that could lead to reproduction. That's why officials went to Taiwan - the only place other than the Philippines where whale sharks are hunted for food - six months ago to capture two females, the latest additions to the Ocean Voyager exhibit.

"You've heard of spring fever. In the springtime, the reproduction cycle starts in plants and animals. But if you have all males here, you can't track the cycle," Davis said. "It would be great to have offspring born here, but the key to that is finding out how they get to that point."

No one knows exactly how old the whale sharks are. But right now, Davis said, none of the animals seems to be interested in taking the mating step:

"The males are like 10-year-old boys. They know the girls are there, but they just tolerate them."

"Our goal is to tell the story of the whale shark," Davis said. "When you understand an animal's place in the environment, it helps us understand what we need to do to protect that environment."

The Georgia Aquarium was a gift to the city from Bernie Marcus, the founder of the Home Depot, who has a fascination for aquatic life. Landing four whale sharks was a major coup for the aquarium, and now officials have their sights on something bigger - though no one will reveal what.

If the initial secrecy that surrounded the first two whale sharks is an indication, no one will know anything about the new animals until they arrive. For a long time, all the public knew was there was a "Ralph" exhibit under construction. No one knew that Ralph would be a whale shark until after he and Norton arrived under guard in the middle of the night.

"Bernie Marcus likes to say, `When you have the hammer on the shelf, then you advertise,'" said Jeff Swanagan, executive director of the aquarium. "There are over 24,000 species of fishes, and they discover new ones all the time. So we will always have a team searching the globe for additional fish to add to our exhibit."

Dahleen Glanton writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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