Funded mostly by a $250 million donation from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, the aquarium was built on a 20 acre (81,000 m²) site north of Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. Marcus credited his 60th birthday dinner at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 1990 as among the inspirations behind his desire to build an aquarium in Atlanta.
In November 2001, Bernard Marcus announced his idea to build an aquarium as a present to Atlanta, Georgia that would encourage both education and economic growth. Marcus and his wife Billi visited 56 aquariums in 13 countries to research and design a structure, and finally donated $250 million toward Georgia Aquarium’s construction. An additional $40 million dollars in financial contributions was donated by major corporations including the Coca-Cola Company, Turner Broadcasting, Home Depot, UPS, AirTran Airways, BellSouth, Georgia Pacific, Time Warner, SunTrust and Southern Company. The corporate donations allowed the aquarium to open debt free.
Marcus hired Jeff Swanagan, the then CEO of the Florida Aquarium, as the Georgia Aquarium's first employee in 2002. Swanagan had been credited with turning around the financially troubled Florida Aquarium during his tenure as CEO. Swanagan would become the Georgia Aquarium's founding president and executive director, and is largely credited with the creation of the aquarium. He oversaw every aspect in the creation of the aquarium, from the design of the structure to the procurement of animals for the exhibits.
After 27 months and with 60 animal habitats, 16,400 square feet (1,520 m2) of ball room space, 2 food service kitchens, gift shops, a 4-D theater, an on-site restaurant, and a parking lot, the Georgia Aquarium opened first on November 21, 2005 to annual pass holders and then on November 23, 2005 to the general public. At $26 per adult, $21.50 for Seniors, and $19.50 for Children, the price of admission to the non-profit aquarium is among the most expensive in the country. The aquarium has nevertheless far exceeded visitor expectations, welcoming its 1 millionth guest on March 1, 2006, only ninety-eight days after opening. The aquarium sold over 290,000 annual passes for its first year, before sales were halted (to avoid a "private club" atmosphere, according to Aquarium Executive Director Jeff Swanagan). The Georgia Aquarium welcomed its three millionth guest on August 24, 2006, its five millionth on May 23, 2007, and its ten millionth guest on June 25, 2009.
Jeff Swanagan remained the president and chief executive of the Georgia Aquarium until 2008, when he departed to join the Columbus Zoo. He was succceeded as president by Anthony Godfrey. Godfrey had originally been hired by Swanagan in 2004 as the aquarium's chief financial officer.
The Georgia Aquarium contains between 100,000 and 120,000 fish and other sea creatures, representing more than five hundred species. On June 14, 2005, the total number of specimens was unveiled after having previously being reported as "over 55,000". Marcus was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as saying: "I have been saying that we would have more than 55,000 fish; I just never said how many more." The fish were transported from Taiwan to the aquarium by UPS in 42 tanks aboard an MD-11. UPS donated the cost of the shipping, estimated at over $200,000 US currency.
The aquarium's most famous specimens were four young whale sharks from Taiwan named Ralph, Norton, Alice and Trixie, after the primary characters from The Honeymooners. Ralph died from peritonitis on January 11, 2007, and Norton followed on June 13, 2007 when the aquarium made the decision to euthanize him after he had shown signs of erratic swimming and had stopped eating. Ralph and Norton were with the Georgia Aquarium at its opening; Alice and Trixie joined the aquarium June 3, 2006.
The Georgia Aquarium is the only institution outside of Asia to house whale sharks. The sharks are kept in a 6.3 million gallon (24,000 m³) tank, and the aquarium was actually designed around the whale shark exhibit. The importation of the whale sharks from Taiwan, which was overseen by Jeff Swanagan and staff biologists, was "top secret" and had never been attempted previously. The move required the use of large aircraft, trucks and boats to ship the massive aquatic animals to Atlanta. The four whale sharks were taken from Taiwan's annual fishing kill quota, which the country has since abolished. Under the quota, the whale sharks would have been killed and eaten if they had not been purchased by the Georgia Aquarium.
On May 25, 2007, Taiwan's Fisheries Agency announced the Aquarium had been approved to receive two more whale sharks before Taiwan bans the animals' capture in 2008. On June 1, 2007 the two new whale sharks arrived at the aquarium. The two sharks, caught earlier in 2007, are named Taroko, commemorating Taroko Gorge National Park, and Yushan after Taiwan's Jade Mountain.
The aquarium is currently one of only two aquariums in the United States to exhibit a Great Hammerhead Shark, the other is the Adventure Aquarium. The aquarium was also home to five 11 foot (3 m) long beluga whales. Two males named Nico and Gasper were rescued from a Mexico City amusement park where they lived under a roller coaster. Because of insufficient weight, skin lesions, and a bone disease, on January 2, 2007, Gasper was euthanized. Marina died on December 1, 2007 of what may have been natural causes (she was 25 years old). Nico died unexpectedly on October 31, 2009 after being relocated to SeaWorld San Antonio temporarily during an aquarium construction project. The remaining females (Natasha and Maris) are on breeding loan from the New York Aquarium. The aquarium is among six other US aquariums, including Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, with belugas in their collections.
Continuing its drive to display marine animals rarely seen in the United States, the aquarium acquired a manta ray from an aquarium facility in Durban, South Africa. Named "Nandi," the manta was caught by accident in nets meant to protect the coast from sharks. Officials at the Durban facility determined that the manta had outgrown its home, and offered the manta to the much-larger Georgia Aquarium. Nandi first went on display in the Ocean Voyager exhibit on August 25, 2008 as the first manta ray on display in the country, and making the aquarium one of only four in the world to display one. A second manta ray was added to the collection in September 2009.
The aquatic animals are displayed in five different galleries: Georgia Explorer, Tropical Diver, Ocean Voyager, Cold- Water Quest, and River Scout. Each corresponds to a specific environment. At the left as one enters the aquarium is the Georgia Explorer exhibit, geared especially towards children. It features a number of touch tanks with rays and sharks as well as exhibits featuring sea turtles and the wildlife of Gray's Reef – a National Marine Sanctuary off the Georgia Coast. The second exhibit, River Scout, also reflects regional environments. It features an overhead river where visitors can see North American fish from the bottom up. In addition to local specimens, this exhibit displays piranha, electric fish, and other unusual freshwater life. The third section of the aquarium, Cold Water Quest, features animals from the polar regions of the world and contains most of the mammals in the aquarium's collection. This exhibit includes beluga whales in the aquarium's second largest habitat, California sea lions, Japanese spider crabs, and African black-footed penguins. The fourth exhibit, entitled Ocean Voyager, includes the vast majority of the aquarium's water and almost 100,000 fish. This exhibit is designed to feature the life of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, and showcases the aquarium's whale sharks, as well as a 100 foot (30 m) underwater tunnel and the world's second largest viewing window. The final exhibit takes an artistic turn, as the Tropical Diver exhibit features many curious and haunting forms of aquatic life, including a living reef with live coral. The aquarium also features a "4D" movie "Deepo's Undersea 3D Wondershow", and other attractions, including the Ocean Voyager – Journey With Giants exhibit hall where the Chedd-Angier-Lewis production company, with Electrosonic Inc., has produced the Open Ocean Touchwall, a dynamic, interactive projection for species identification. This is a virtual aquarium where larger than life, fully articulated 3-D renderings of Open Ocean fish swim across six panels assembled to simulate a tank. Guests are invited to reach out and place hands or fingers on the fish. As they do so, fun and informative content bubbles appear to educate the guest about the particular species they have chosen. Also, in 2009, the "Titanic Aquatic" exhibit opened, which features a walkthrough of what it was like on the ship RMS Titanic. The exhibit will only be at the aquarium until September 7, 2009.
The aquarium development was managed by Heery International who served as the Program Manager / Owner's representative for the Georgia Aquarium. The base building was designed by Atlanta-based architecture firm tvsdesign, formerly Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates. In addition, tvsdesign also did the interior design of the facility as well as the design of the two retail shops located inside the aquarium. The aquarium galleries were designed by the St. Louis based firm of PGAV.
According to aquarium founder Bernard Marcus, the aquarium's conservation and environmental mission is just as important as its status as an attraction. Long before opening, the aquarium was already working with Georgia Tech and Georgia State University in Atlanta and the University of Georgia in Athens to help save endangered species through education and research programs.
The acquisition of the male beluga whales, previously suffering in an inadequate environment, was hailed by Marcus as a prime example of the type of conservation activities the Aquarium should be involved with. Approximately 100 tarpon stranded in a tidal pool at Skidaway Island, off the Georgia coast, were rescued for the collection. Coral used in exhibits at the Aquarium is manmade in a collaboration between Georgia Tech and the University of the South Pacific, produced by suspending blocks of pumice over a reef near the village of Tagaqe, Fiji for eight months so that seaweeds and reef invertebrates could establish colonies.
The Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest at the time of its opening in November 2005, encompasses 550,000 square feet (5.1 ha; 13 acres) of covered space and includes 328 tons of acrylic windows, 290 plumbing fixtures, 200 floor drains, 53 roof tops, 61 miles (98 km) of wires and pipes and 100,000 yards (91,000 m) of concrete in the structure. It holds 8,000,000 US gallons (30,000 m3) of fresh and salt water (conditioned with 1,500,000 pounds (680 t) of "Instant Ocean" sea salt mix) and houses more than 100,000 fish and animals. The blue metal and glass exterior of the aquarium was designed to resemble a giant ark breaking through a wave. The ship’s hull appears to emerge from two large buildings that feature curved, flowing roofs that were designed to represent ocean swells. The record for largest aquarium in the world is highly contested; however, Dubai's three story Dubai Mall aquarium claims it will be the world's largest when it opens in the new Burj Dubai project.
With an accelerated 27-month schedule, the project timeline for the construction of the aquarium was aggressive. To facilitate the phased construction activities that were essential to meeting the project schedule, two-ply asphalt BUR was installed over a lightweight concrete deck. This temporary roof allowed for expedited construction and the associated roof traffic. The final stage included installation of the light gray FiberTite roofing system, which was selected to match the gray wall panels. Construction of the aquarium was contracted by Brasfield & Gorrie, a general contractor headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama.
In addition to the massive habitats that are the core of the aquarium, the facility includes the 16,400 square feet (1,520 m2) Oceans Ballroom – a banquet hall that can host events for up to 1100 seated or 1600 at a reception. The hall features two 10 by 28 feet (3.0 m × 8.5 m) windows into the exhibits housing the whale sharks and beluga whales. It can also be subdivided into three smaller spaces for events. Chef Wolfgang Puck's company will manage catering services for this facility. The aquarium also includes a fairly large food court with tables extending into the main lobby. The costs of building the aquarium escalated beyond Marcus' original US$250 million donation. To complete the facility without scaling back plans, six local companies — AirTran Airways, BellSouth, Georgia-Pacific, The Home Depot, Southern Company, and SunTrust Banks — signed on as presenting sponsors for exhibits.
In May of 2008, the Georgia Aquarium announced plans to build a $110 million expansion to the facility for a new dolphin exhibit. The expansion will occupy an area of 84,000 square feet (7,800 m2) and will contain 1,300,000 US gallons (4,900 m3) of water. Located on the west side of the facility, the exhibit will feature space for live presentations, observation windows and opportunities for visitors to interact with the animals, which are being lent by Marineland on a breeding loan. This expansion will be self funded by the aquarium, possibly with the help of a corporate sponsor.
Construction began later in 2008, and the scheduled completion date is November 2010, five years after the aquarium first opened. During part of the construction, the aquarium's three beluga whales were temporarily relocated to SeaWorld San Antonio. Beluga whales are very sensitive to sound, and while officials had not noted any excessive amounts of stress, it was decided to remove them anyway and eliminate the possibility. Unexpectedly, one of the three belugas, Nico, died at SeaWorld on October 31, 2009; a preliminary necropsy was unable to determine if Nico's death was caused by the move or by something else.
Originally proposed for the Atlantic Station development in Midtown Atlanta, the Georgia Aquarium is located in downtown Atlanta, just north of Centennial Olympic Park. In addition to the Park and the Aquarium, within a short distance are the Georgia Dome, the Georgia World Congress Center, Philips Arena, and CNN Center. The Coca-Cola Company donated 9 acres (40,000 m²; 4 ha) of land to the site and opened a new World of Coca-Cola attraction on property adjacent to the aquarium. The site is named Pemberton Place in honor of Coca-Cola creator John Pemberton.
Even before opening, the Georgia Aquarium helped drive new development in the area aiding efforts by the City of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress, a group of local business leaders, to revitalize downtown. In December 2004, a $300 million office and hotel development was announced for a nearby site. The complex is named Allen Plaza in commemoration of former Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., and includes office space for the Southern Company and accounting firm Ernst & Young, as well as W Hotel.
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