Life is da Bubbles at the Georgia Aquarium

wow wall at Georgia Aquarium

As much as I love visiting museums on the down-low, seeing what the typical visitor sees, there’s something to be said for behind-the-scenes tours. And what a tour it was at the Georgia Aquarium.

First of all, a big thanks goes out to Jen Richards, our unofficial tour guide. The Georgia Aquarium has a solid collection of behind-the-scenes tours — want to SCUBA dive in the whale shark tank? you can! — but I doubt any of them are as intimate as Jen’s tour was for just me and Ryan. Plus, ours was free.

Jen’s story is heartening to anyone who’s looking to start a career in museums: she came to the Georgia Aquarium as a volunteer, and turned it into a full time paying gig as a trainer. No, she’s not a dolphin trainer, she teaches classes on marine conservation. For us, this meant that she could not only identify every species we encountered, she often recognized each individual.

whale shark feeding

nom nom nom

Speaking of marine conservation, the Georgia Aquarium is very involved in research and restoration. Take, for example, its whale sharks. The Aquarium has four whale sharks in a massive tank, and they’ve been studying how these filter-feeding sharks actually eat their food. While their mouths are quite large, their throats are very small, and rather than use teeth to pierce or chew, they use modified gill rakers to filter plankton, krill, larvae and eggs from the water. Their filtration system is so good, they can differentiate grains of rice from their normal food (yes, the Aquarium tried it)! The Aquarium has also been conducting field research on the animals since 2005, focusing right now on what goes on at the mysterious annual gathering of whale sharks in the Yucatan, and what triggers it. Call it a whale-shark moot if you will.

 

camouflage wall

At the “The Watery World of Colors” wall

One of the brilliant things about the Aquarium is that even the non-public space contains mini exhibits with tanks, panels and labels, which gives the impression that the Aquarium has its visitors in mind all the time. Even the hallways are lined with research posters, marine life sculpture and photography, species silhouettes for size and shape comparison, and even a “camouflage wall” meant to teach school groups that camouflage colors are relative to your background. Another such non-public-yet-educational space is the area above the tropical reef tank. Seeing the reef from down below, you’re looking at beautiful fish and coral and clear water. Seeing the reef from above, you suddenly understand just how much work it takes to artificially create that environment, which in my case helped me appreciate just how astounding our natural reefs ecosystems are.

water influx at the reef tank

Lights, water, action!

First, there’s the sheer quantity of water that needs to be perfectly chemically balanced and added to the system. Staff have to check the chemical makeup of the water in every tank multiple times a day to keep it calibrated, and compounds are constantly added and removed, which requires a lot of different containers of crazy hues. Every two minutes, the reef gets an influx of new water, and that’s just one of the many many exhibition tanks at the Georgia Aquarium; given that the Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the world, you can imagine how much water they use on a daily basis, and this water must be guaranteed from the city. All day long there are heat/light lamps shining on the surface of the reef tank, but lamps alone aren’t enough, so the Aquarium has a huge skylight just for the tropical reef for more light. This light is so important that through a city ordinance, the Aquarium actually controls all the airspace above the skylight, which means they can block skyscrapers from being built that would cast shadows over the reef.

Georgia Aquarium skylight

Yeah, the Georgia Aquarium controls all of that.

Then there’s the coral. Most aquarium coral reefs aren’t made of living coral (mostly because it’s illegal to take coral from a living reef, so if you’re starting from scratch, you can’t use the real thing), but the Georgia Aquarium grows its own coral, and is slowly trying to replace the dead matter in its tanks with the living colonies it breeds. Not only that, but they’re taking these coral colonies out into the Florida Keys to replace staghorn and elkhorn coral in reefs that have been damaged by pollution and storms.

shark purses

aww, shark purses

When you’re above the tropical reef tank, you can get up close to the coral and mangrove nurseries, the shallow “shoals” where sharks are hatched and grown, the system through which water is filtered and proteins removed (ohhh, so that’s what sea foam is…), and the room where all the various organisms are grown to feed the animals in the exhibits. Seeing all this work, you begin to understand why an adult ticket costs $30. Now just think, there are places where you can go see all of this happening totally naturally, and for free. It’s an eye-opening, educational experience, one which I wish was available to regular visitors.

belugas at play

One of the many vantage points where you can see Belugas at play. (This photo was taken from the event hall, a room which none of the other visitors seemed to know about)

The Aquarium’s behind-the-scenes endeavors are impressive, but perhaps even more impressive is the “wow-wall” (see top photo). Or watching wobbegongs, sharks and rays swim over your head. Or listening to frogs, or getting as close as possible to the belugas and penguins. For all the crowds (and believe me, it is crowded, especially right before and after the dolphin shows), the Aquarium has figured out how to design exhibits that don’t make you feel like a sardine. That is to say, there’s a certain flow to the exhibits themselves that minimizes the crowding: you can move past clumps of people, or find a spot in front of a tank and stay as long as you want, or even find an unexpected critter in some nook. And if a certain exhibition looks like it’s too busy, the radial layout means you can just scoot over to another exhibition space and come back later. Besides, the sleek design of the tanks and rooms themselves are so beautiful, you forget about the people around you.

For all these positives, it seems silly to think that I was initially trepidatious about the Georgia Aquarium. The path from the parking garage to the Aquarium entrance was lined with row upon row of cartoony posters for the 4-D shows, there were ads in the sidewalk for some exhibition involving celebrity names getting an aquatic flair, and the intercoms were constantly broadcasting updates about the various exhibits. All in all, I was expecting something very kid-oriented, and frankly fairly commercialized/theme-park. There’s nothing wrong with kid-oriented museums, and there’s nothing wrong with museums airing commercials to get people through the door (I’ve been seeing ads lately on various websites for the California Academy of Sciences’ new earthquake exhibition, and been feeling homesick as a result). However, it was kind of off-putting to get the hard-sell when I was already on the Aquarium’s property, and I experienced some cognitive dissonance between the elegance of the exhibits and our Disney-esque entrance. Don’t get me wrong, Disneyland can be a lot of fun, but you have to be in the mood for it. My experience just highlighted how zoos and aquariums are always straddling a line between entertainment and conservation education, and sometimes it’s less of a balancing act than jumping between alternating hoops.

I’m not saying any of this to turn anyone off of going to the Georgia Aquarium, in fact, quite the opposite. I used to try to prepare my museum trips with lots of planning and research, but now I try to just show up and let the experience happen. I’m not a passive agent, but I don’t try to shape the museum into a prescribed form based on my first impressions. Now, first impressions being first impressions, they still count in my overall experience, but they don’t define it. The museum experience starts long before the visitor sees the first exhibit hall, and first impressions are formed from webpage visits, newspaper articles and friends’ recommendations, not to mention the atmosphere and accommodations of the thresh-hold. Design matters, and so do personal touches like having staff to greet you personally at the door. In some cases though, museums can surprise you, and their contents may belie their outer trappings. In the same way that museums can’t totally control the visitor and make them conform to the institution’s vision, the visitor can’t totally control the museum and make it conform to their preferences. So, give an institution a fair chance. I did, and the Georgia Aquarium certainly surprised me.

 

 

One Thought on “Life is da Bubbles at the Georgia Aquarium

  1. Pingback: REVIEW — The Georgia Aquarium | Paleocave Blog

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