I visited a fascinating customer last week in Atlanta – not the one you know associated with news and cable, the other one – and had a morning off before heading to the airport. I had heard of the aquarium in Atlanta and the whale sharks so I headed over there. A few practical points for you: 1/ it doesn’t open until 10am (same with the World of Coke by the way) 2/ the entrance is really messy line-wise with confusion as to whether you are in a queue for tickets or for the security check 3/ their app for advance ticket sales did not work on my iPhone 4/ it costs $37 for the entrance (!) 5/ they will hold you luggage for you ($2 per item 6/ there are always taxis queued up in the street in front and 7/ it is only 15 minutes away (without traffic) from the Atlanta Airport.
Once inside, you walk through a beautiful hallway surrounded by shiny tunafish (and an explanation that the Chicken of the Sea may soon be the Dodo of the sea if the harvesting of these warm water fish does not slow down) and you enter the center of the aquarium. It is entirely indoors (probably a good idea given the HOT summer weather and the recent SNOW and reminded me a bit of the pyramid at the Louvre. Basically, the various exhibits are all around you: starting from right and working around the the left:
1/ Tropical Diver: a decent exhibit (albeit typical) of corals and colourful fish with a sort of overhead wave pool
2/ Ocean Explorer – the AWESOME exhibit with whale sharks and mantas. This is the highlight of the entire aquarium and places it easily in the Top 3 or Top 5 aquariums world-wide. Personally, only the one in Sydney on Darling Harbor or Sea World in Orlando rival it (I have heard that the Oceanarium in Lisbon, Portugal is way up there too). There are two (!!) whale sharks here, two manta rays (!!), over 500 other rays, 1000s of fish, tons of other sharks…it is fabulous. A trick: head in from the back of the exhibit to go directly to the best viewing area – a 10m x 6x glass wall for viewing the whole space (I found that the tunnel leading to it was too crowded and not all that interesting – perhaps because I have seen that trick many times before in Paris, Orlando, Sydney, etc). I spent probably an hour of the two I was there just marvelling at this exhibit and the wonderful animals in it.
3/ Café Aquaria and Oceans Ballroom for the food court and groups. I didn’t take time to eat there so can’t give you any info
4/ Coldwater Quest – kick butt exhibit of cold water fish, a HUGE stone crab, the tiny South African penguins, California sea otters, and four (!!!) beautiful sirenesque beluga whales (a mom and three daughters if I heard correctly). Not much else to say except that it was almost spooky watching them for a while – the ghostly white, the mammalian faces and tummies looking a bit humanoid after a while – maybe they just convey intelligence or something? Gorgeous animals and perhaps a shame to be pent up in an aquarium.
5/ Dolphin Tales – every big money aquarium has got to have some kind of trained animal show and they are typically either orcas or dolphins (although there are the occasional seals as well). Here it was dolphins but the show surrounding it turned me off. It was a series B Disney thing with silly songs, a dumb plot about green haired somethings kidnapping the ship captain and saved…by dolphins. So, dumbass story aside, there were long periods with no dolphins (thank god this was included with the price of admission and not an extra ticket!) but the moments with dolphins and human swimmers were pretty cool. If I counted correctly, there were 8 swimmers (and the terrible singer dude) and 5 dolphins. Probably thrilling if you are less than 10 or 12, and a bit insipid for old farts like me. Side note: it was mentioned lots of times that photography was forbidden. I was squeezed in a seat between a very large tourist dude in shorts, sweaty legs and a Hawaiian shirt and a mom, dad, and five-year old. The mom was constantly trying to take clandestine photos of the show. I felt a little miffed at the example that set for her kid sitting right next to her. How do we teach kids restraint and respect for rules when we blatantly and shamefully disobey them? OK, end of soapbox.
6/ River Scout – an interesting idea of looking at fresh water fish but more geared to kids.
7/ Georgia Explorer – a kids exhibit where they can touch the fish and stuff.
8/ The Gift Shop – you are obliged to go through this massive gift shop if you don’t want to sleep in the museum (or you simply want to catch your flight home). It admittedly has a good book collection for kids (near the cash registers) but also the predictable stuffed animals and billions of keychains and such.
I was done with the whole place in about 45 minutes but went back and enjoyed the whale sharks and belugas a few times and caught the dolphin show (30 minutes). With kids, you could probably stretch it to a half or 3/4 day. Right across from this is the World of Coke (about $16 to get in – gift shop is free if you walk around the back and submit to the security check). Opening later this year between the two is a Human Rights Museum as well.
I was enamoured with the whale sharks, manta rays, and belugas and found that to make the entire visit (and cost) worthwhile. Who’d've thought that Atlanta of all places would have such a wonderful aquarium? Definitely worth a night or two in Atlanta!