The Georgia Aquarium, located in Atlanta, Georgia at Pemberton Place, is billed as the "world’s largest aquarium" with more than 8 million US gallons (30,000 m³; 30,000,000 liters) of marine and fresh water housing more than 100,000 animals of 500 different species. The aquarium’s notable specimens include young whale sharks (Norton, Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko) and four beluga whales (Nico, Natasha, Marina, and Maris). Funded mostly by a $250 million donation from Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, the aquarium was built on a 20 acre (81,000 m²; 8 ha) 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 of 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. Due to financial contributions from AirTran Airways, BellSouth, Georgia- Pacific, The Home Depot, Southern Company, Turner Broadcasting System, UPS, and the Coca- Cola Company, the company opened debt free. After 27 months and with 60 animal habitats, 16 4000-square-foot ball rooms, 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 $24.00 per adult, 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 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 and its five millionth on May 23, 2007.
The Georgia Aquarium contains between 100,000 to 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, which is headquartered in nearby Sandy Springs. in 42 tanks aboard an MD-11. UPS donated the cost of the shipping, estimated at over US$200,000.
The aquarium’s most famous specimens are three young whale sharks from Taiwan named Norton, Alice and Trixie after the primary characters from The Honeymooners. A fourth whale shark, Ralph, died from peritonitis on January 11, 2007. Ralph and Norton were with the Georgia Aquarium at its opening; Alice and Trixie joined the aquarium June 3, 2006. This is the first time whale sharks have been kept in an aquarium outside of Asia. The sharks are kept in a 6.2 million gallon (23.5 million liter) exhibit. On May 25, 2007, Taiwan’s Fisheries Agency announced the Aquarium had been approved to receive two more whale sharks before Taiwan begins a ban 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 also home to four 11 foot (3 meter) 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. The three females 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.
The aquatic animals are displayed in five different galleries, Georgia Explorer, Tropical Diver, Ocean Voyager, Cold- Water Quest, and River Scout. They each correspond 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, exhibits display 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 meter) 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 and other attractions, including in 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.
The aquarium was designed by Atlanta-based architecture firm Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVS). In addition, TVS Interiors did the interior design of the facility as well as the design of the two retail shops located inside the aquarium.
The Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest at the time of its opening in November 2005, encompasses 550,000 sq. feet (11.6 acres; 4.7 hectares) of covered space and includes 328 tons of acrylic windows, 290 plumbing fixtures, 200 floor drains, 53 roof tops, 61 miles of wires and pipes and 100,000 yards of concrete in the structure. It holds eight million gallons (thirty million litres) of fresh and salt water (conditioned with 1.5 million pounds of Instant Salt) 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 to 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 foot (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 x 28 foot (3 x 9 meter) 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.
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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