December 3, 2011 – Friday we headed out for a weekend road trip to Atlanta. We stayed at an HGI in Alpharetta. The hotel was good, with a very nice breakfast, nice room, and was very quiet – even with a few socceer teams and the SEC (college football) game in town over the weekend; just over 5 hours driving time.
December 3, 2011 – The first stop was the Georgia Aquarium. There’s a convenient parking garage right next door, complete with a heated outdoor walkway (they vent the walkway with hot air from inside the aquarium). Once inside we were quiete impressed, not only with the building itself but with all the helpful volunteers. They must have noticed our lost expressions and directed us towards various exhibits. The building is shaped like a wheel, with different spokes coming off the main lobby area. Each of the exhibits have a clearly defined entrance and exit, which helps maintain the flow of traffic. Fortunately, we got there near opening and it wasn’t very crowded.
The first exhibit we wanted to see was the whale shark tank. These are very large fish that can grow to the size of a school bus; the four in the aquarium were between 19′ and about 22′ long. The tank is almost the length of a football field, and includes various viewing windows (with windowseats!) and a glass-covered tunnel. The tunnel also has a very slowly-moving people mover off to one side, so folks can just stand and look around without running into anyone else. 😉 We really liked the tunnel – we saw the whale sharks, a group of about 10 little rays swimming in a V-shape, manta rays, three tiger sharks chasing each other, another shark with very large teeth, giant grouper and an assortment of smaller fish.
Once through the tunnel we found the large viewing area for the tank and snagged some spots on the floor by the glass. Now was the time for the whale shark feeding. Marine biologists sit in little rafts and pull themselves back and forth, while using nets to feed the whale sharks krill. Each whale shark recognizes the color of their food bucket (red, yellow, green or blue) and lines up in the appropriate feeding lane.
We also saw the large (about 10-11′ from tip to tip) manta rays doing their back flips to draw food into their mouths, and a few spotted eagle rays went swimming / flapping by, as well as a guitar shark (so named because it resembles a guitar). The giant grouper was lurking in a corner of a tank; it’s more territorial than the sharks, so one diver out of a group carries a 3-4′ long metal rod to discourage the grouper from sneaking up behind and ambushing an unaware diver.
Other exhibits in the aquarium are interesting, too. There’s a colony of South African penguins. One penguin had a piece of straw and another kept trying to steal it; another penguin kept staring at Tony’s black t-shirt (“funny, he doesn’t *really* look like a penguin….”). It’s also fun to watch the penguins flop into the water, then try to figure out a way to climb back on the rocks. My favorite was one who swam really fast towards a sloping rock and used it as a reverse-slide to get back to higher ground. There’s also a crawlspace where you can look at a penguin eye-to-eye (if they’re cooperating and hanging out near the space you come out by).
And there are beluga whales (think: fail whale. Or “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”) They were happily swimming in circles… while being upside down. Just because. A few sea otters share the whales’ tank as well, though they were mostly just swimming alon the bottom of the tank.
Starfish, jellyfish, a cute little tree boa, a poisonous milk frog (who was sitting about 1′ from the little boa), burrowing fish, tropical fish, sea horses, sea urchons, sea anenomes and other creatures round out the exhibits. As well as river otters, who are always fun to watch, particularly when they wiggle around to scratch their backs on the rocks.