Georgia Aquarium’s 10th-anniversary celebration will spill into 2016

December 24,2015

Three years before the Georgia Aquarium opened, Bernie Marcus and then-aquarium director Jeff Swanagan spent seven months traveling to zoos, aquariums and practically every major attraction in the U.S. to see what worked and what didn’t, what they liked and what would prompt them, as visitors, not to return.

Marcus, the co-founder of Home Depot who gifted $250 million to open the downtown aquatic institution, was determined to do things that had never been done before, to open an attraction that was both educational and entertaining.

The aquarium, which opened Nov. 23, 2005, has ushered in about 22 million visitors its first decade. While the staff acknowledged the milestone privately, the public will experience the celebration throughout 2016.

Among the upgrades are tweaks to the AT&T Dolphin Tales show, which will, according to Handy, “shift to appeal to an older audience and focus on the animals rather than a character.”The Broadway-esque show opened in 2011.

Ocean Voyager is the visual centerpiece of the Georgia Aquarium, with several thousand fish swimming in 6.3 million gallons of water.

The 4D Theater will also be refreshed with new technology and show films from a library of thousands, including kid-friendly fare such as Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.

The theater will shutter in January and reopen in March.

But the most aww-inducing upgrade will be the return of sea lions, which the aquarium relocated to other facilities in 2008 when work began on the dolphin exhibit. The $40 million gallery is being built in the former SunTrust Georgia Explorer area, which closed in early 2015 for renovations.

The aquarium’s sea lion exhibit is slated to open in the first quarter of 2016.

The aquarium recently rescued a pair of sea lion pups — named Neptune and Jupiter in a fancontest — that were found stranded and malnourished along the California coast.

They’ll join eight adult sea lions, including Diego, a 400-pounder who was part of the aquarium’s original sea lion group (rescued as a youngster after being found under a police car in Redondo Beach, Calif.).

Will Elgar, director of animal training for pinnipeds at the Georgia Aquarium, said the new exhibit is designed to be interactive — a live presentation will be included — to best highlight the characteristics of the animals.

“They’re very curious, like Labradors,” Elgar said of the whiskered, eared seals.

While it’s hard to deny the doe-eyed adorableness of the sea lions, it’s the Ocean Voyager area, with its 6.3 million gallons of water, several thousand fish, and quartets of manta rays and whale sharks (Trixie, Alice, Yushan and Taroko if you want to say hello) coasting behind massive glass windows, that tends to be a potent memory for most visitors.

Research is a priority at the Georgia Aquarium, even as it earns numerous kudos from Trip Advisor and USA Today as one of the top tourist attractions in the country.

One of the country’s most respected voices about marine science, Alistair Dove, is the director of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium and is currently focusing his efforts on the biology of the whale shark.

Dove and a team of five plan to head to Saint Helena island, a remote area in the South Atlantic Ocean, at the end of December to spend weeks putting out satellite tags to record movements on whale sharks in the wild, among other research (the aquarium’s Yushan is allowing the staff to draw blood, a technique Dove hopes to bring to the field to study the effects of pollution and the whales’ sexual maturation).

“The kids get their minds blown when they see these animals here. They’re very receptive to learning about them,” Dove said. “The goal is a real-time science outreach. What we do in the field and what we do here are totally complementary.”

As the Georgia Aquarium moves into its second decade of existence, Handy said some form of expansion is almost a guarantee — likely vertically rather than horizontally.

But for now, he’ll take a moment to reflect.

“I want people to remember that this (aquarium) came from an individual who had a dream and who realized his life wasn’t just about him,” Handy said of Marcus, who is chairman emeritus of the aquarium board. “That’s part of our DNA. I don’t want us to ever forget where we came from, but stay focused on where we’re going.”