November 24, 2005

Georgia Aquarium Amazes Visitors

ATLANTA -- Tom Corvin was only in town from Kansas City to visit family and didn't even know Wednesday was the opening day for the Georgia Aquarium, the largest of its kind in the world.

Standing in a sort of aquatic petting zoo at the aquarium - where people can touch horseshoe crabs, sea stars and hermit crabs - he said he liked what he'd seen but had just gotten there.

That was before he walked up to the aquarium's main attraction - two whale sharks, the world's largest fish species.

"I've never seen anything like it," Corvin said as he left more than an hour later. "Overwhelming."

It was a sentiment echoed by many of the thousands of visitors who made their way through the aquarium Wednesday. They walked through underwater glass tunnels where giant groupers and schools of fish peacefully swam overhead. They peered into tanks where jellyfish floated with a radiance that was almost ethereal.

Cal VanderPlate, who was there with his wife and 15-year-old son, said he liked how visual and interactive many of the exhibits were. "It's constantly catching your interest and engaging," said VanderPlate, who is from Atlanta.

"Amazing," said Atlanta resident Cleaster Cotton as she giddily took pictures in the aquarium's tunnel. "It's fantastic and it's magical."

The 500,000-square-foot aquarium in downtown Atlanta was bankrolled almost exclusively by a $200 million gift from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus. It's expected to attract as many as 2 million visitors in its first year with what its creators say will be a one-of-a-kind take on fish tanks.

Walking through the aquarium Wednesday, Marcus' stepson, Michael Morris, who's also on the aquarium's board, said the crowds on the first day exceeded expectations, though the exact count may not be known until Thursday.

Morris said Marcus has been getting praise from people who see him in the aquarium. "He's walked into a couple of rooms where, spontaneously, he's received a standing ovation," he said.

The aquarium is the centerpiece of a downtown Atlanta revival that is aimed at drawing millions more visitors to the Southern city each year.

Already neighboring Centennial Olympic Park and across the street from CNN Center and the Georgia Dome, the aquarium will be joined in 2007 by a new World of Coca-Cola museum next door. The city also is a finalist for NASCAR's hall of fame that would be located in what is now a parking lot neighboring the other attractions.

Not everyone there Wednesday was enthusiastic about the new aquarium.

Outside three members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals held a small demonstration that featured a caged woman in a mermaid outfit. Sitting in the cage with only a small sign covering her chest, Micah Risk said aquariums harm fish by taking them out of their natural habitat.

"We're just trying to bring attention to what's going on and ask compassionate people to boycott the world's largest aquarium," Risk said.

But the PETA demonstration did not seem to win over any aquarium patrons. One woman grumbled about her children having to see a half-naked woman as she walked by. "Get a life, would you?!" yelled a passing motorist at the protesters.

Morris wouldn't comment on the protest.


On the Net:

Georgia Aquarium: http://www.georgiaaquarium.org