Wednesday, September 2, 2009

My Trip To See The Gentle Giants

A few years ago, I heard about the opening of the Georgia Aquarium, which is largest aquarium in the world. I knew I would go, I just didn't think so much time would pass before it happened. I am a certified scuba diver and I feel right at home in the water. Certified Diving was the first college course that I signed up for and I took it again later as an elective. Over the years, I have been to the ocean several times to take in the underwater sights and sounds. Beneath the surface you can find the most peaceful world imaginable. It has been a while since my last dive and I have missed it greatly. It was important for me to expose my child to underwater life, and since he is too young to dive, I put the aquarium on my must see list. A few months ago, I sat down to watch an episode of Ghost Hunters (one of my favorites!) and realized that they were at Georgia Aquarium's Titanic Aquatic Exhibit. I was immediately intrigued, but did not know when I would be able to find the time to make a trip. I thought about it often, but only recently decided to look up the Georgia Aquarium and find out all the details. When I discovered that the Titanic Exhibit would be leaving in September, I knew it was now or never. I have had a long fascination with the Titanic and I viewed this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I wanted to share this history with Logan. I asked my mom to join us and we made the three hour trip to Atlanta. Before we left, I spent hours printing educational materials. I searched online and found Titanic fact sheets and educational quizzes and coloring pages. I also printed coloring pages from The Georgia Aquarium's website which included fun, interesting facts about their animals. We ordered the Combo Passes online and printed our tickets at home. Just before we left, I contacted the aquarium and we were invited on a personal Behind-The-Scenes Sea Keepers Tour. To disclose, the tour was given to us in exchange for this review. But to be totally honest, I was going to feature the Georgia Aquarium regardless. The tour was a wonderful opportunity, and now I am able to share that memorable experience as part of this review. We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Atlanta. The next morning, we walked to the Georgia Aquarium (in the rain!) which was only about four blocks away. It was downhill most of the way and this would have been wonderful, except for the fact that it was raining and I was wearing flip flops. Never again. For those that do not like long walks, The Hilton Garden Inn is much closer. When we approached the Georgia Aquarium, we admired the architectural design. It was nestled among the beautiful setting of Centennial Park. Standing at the entrance, we anxiously awaited the aquarium's opening. We did not wait long. Entering the main hall, we had our tickets scanned and we were greeted on both sides by schools of Jacks! The hall was dimly lit, and the aquarium's soft glow was a wonderful transition from the hustle and bustle of the city outside.
Entering the Georgia Aquarium, we immediately took notice of the layout. There is a large open area with several wings that lead to other exhibits. A cafe is at one end and there was a large petting tank to our left. With Logan in tow, we made our way there first. I was pleased that there were hand sanitizer stations near the "petting tanks" and we used them often. Reaching in the tank, Logan had many opportunities to touch Bonnet sharks, which are members of the Hammerhead shark family. We also touched various rays. We were amazed at the difference, and very pleased with the experience. With a promise to return, I led Logan and my mom into the first exhibit. Allow me to mention that there is no first, second, ect. You may see any exhibit in any order. We chose to begin at one side and finish on the other. The Georgia Explorer was the first Exhibit on our list. We stopped at a tank and touched starfish, urchins, and horseshoe crabs. There was also a tank filled with white and brown shrimp. We were captivated by the beautiful lionfish and triggerfish. Logan played with the wheel of a ship and he laughed as he went down the slide and came out of the mouth of a whale!
The River Scout was next on our list. I was amazed at the impressive display of discus and the grand collection of ciclids. They were all so beautiful and bright. A tank of colorful frogs caught my attention and I had my nose pressed to the tank until I noticed an emerald tree boa laying on one of the branches. We passed though an arch that featured an overhead tank filled with catfish and other river giants, and we were in awe of the sights. A tank of piranha beckoned us closer. Those razor sharp teeth were a sight to behold. Passing the American Alligators (hmmm, we see those all the time in south Georgia!) we made our way to the playful Asian small-clawed otters. We took a break and decided to check out the 4D theater on the second level. Deepos Undersea 3D Wondershow was an amazing opportunity. It was our first 4D experience. We followed Deepo, a clownfish, into the sea. He guided Billi the educator through the depths and showed him what some of the animals were facing, thanks to the carelessness of humans. The audience learned different ways to protect marine life while being gently sprayed with cool water and air. Bubbles surrounded us and jellyfish danced over our heads. We were sad for LilDolph, and felt sorry for Smiley, a very misunderstood shark. Seareitha and the Seapremes entertained us and made me see turtles very differently!! I appreciated the very happy ending and hoped that my child had grasped the very important message. The theater was clean and very comfortable. We decided to go downstairs (they have elevators too) and grab a bite to eat. The cafeteria smelled fantastic! We ordered a personal pizza, hamburger, chicken tenders, and drinks. Passing by the beautifully presented desserts, we made our way to the cashiers. We spent just over $26 and we were full when we were finished. The food was hot and wonderful and the drinks were icy cold. We divided everything and we were equally impressed with the taste. Not what we expected. I would eat here any day! We sat down to eat around 11:30. We were able to sit just about anywhere. We returned around 1:00 for drinks and had a harder time finding a place to sit, but we did not have to search long. Tables were being cleaned all around us, and I never saw the staff standing around waiting to clean tables. It was as if they magically disappeared when they were not busy. As soon as a table was vacated, they moved in quickly. I could not believe how well every detail was orchestrated. It was tempting to return for dessert, but since we were unable to eat another bite, we moved on to the next exhibit.
The next exhibit was the Ocean Voyager. Wow! Beginning our journey through this exhibit, we knew we would find the gentle giants. Stepping onto a "moving sidewalk", we were transported though a tunnel, surrounded by some of God's most magnificent creatures. Hammerheads swam around us. Fish were everywhere. Nandi, the only Manta Ray in a US aquarium danced for us in the water. With a gorgeous and impressive wingspan, Nandi stole the show. At least for a little while. Through the depths, we saw what we were waiting for. Arising from the shadows, one of several Whale Sharks made it's way towards us. Catching my breath, I was overwhelmed by it's size and beauty. It was a sight I don't think I'll ever forget. Next, we made our way to Cold Water Quest. Australian weedy sea dragons, giant Pacific octopus, garibaldi damselfish and Japanese spider crabs were all supporting actors to the adorable Beluga Whales. These affectionate whales were playful and full of personality. We watched them turn and twirl, prancing across the stage and bowing to the captivated audience. We also discovered a preserved giant squid. This massive specimen was laid out in a special tank, where we could get an up close view.
It was time for our Sea Keepers Tour, so we made our way to the meeting area. Here's what you can expect:
Visit the top of the live coral reef exhibit where you will discover the secrets of the tropical waters and mangrove forest, located above Tropical Diver, presented by AirTran Airways.
Hear the sounds of the "sea canaries" as you look over the top of the beluga whale exhibit, in Cold Water Quest, presented by Georgia-Pacific.
Observe where the Aquarium team cares for the animals and prepares their food as you visit the Commissary and Veterinary Clinic.
Enjoy the view at the top of the largest ocean exhibit in North America (Ocean Voyager, built by The Home Depot), and observe the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, as it swims below you.
Visit the African penguins in the Correll Center Animal Care Suite.
Includes complimentary souvenir photo at top of an exhibit.

Before I went on this tour, I wondered if it would be worth the hefty price tag. After the tour, I realize that in order to maximize your experience, it is essential to go behind the scenes. It is both educational and fun. I won't spoil it and give you all the details, but I think that it is well worth the price. We learned so much, even stopping by the UPS shipping crates that housed the Whale Sharks during transports. We learned about filtration, set up, care for the animals and aquarium. We saw the aquarium's nursery and so many other things that would have been missed. For those that cannot do a lot of walking, the pace was easy to keep and you can rest and catch your breath at each of the tour stops. My six year old loved it. He was so excited he could not stop talking. I guess I need to work on that! Ashley was gracious and gave us the time of our lives! While some of the interesting facts may be over a younger child's head, it is a rewarding and educational experience for the entire family. The only thing that could have made it better would have been a dive with the Whale Sharks! Afterwards, we made our way to the last aquarium exhibit. We saved the Tropical Diver for last. The sounds of people faded with the light. We entered the darkened realm, which was home to several tanks. Our first encounter was with the curious garden eels. Ohhh! They were a little snake-like and I am so afraid of snakes. But you can't help bending down and watching the eels popping up out of the sand striking out at other eels. Passing seahorses, fairy basslets, yellow-head jawfish and other jewels of the sea, we made our way to one of the most mesmerizing sights. Three impressive exhibits of jellies (“jellyfish”) stopped us in our tracks. Watching the pulsing of the jellies, I felt all my worries slip away. I knew I wanted to take one home. I did by the way, but more on that later! At the center of the gallery is one of the largest living reef exhibits of any aquarium in the world. A tropical Pacific coral reef reproduction played center stage for thousands of colorful fish and living corals. A carefully choreographed overhead crashing wave broke with the sound of music, playing gently in the background.

When it was time to make our way to the Titanic Aquatic exhibit, I could feel the anticipation building. This was a moment I would not forget. Entering the exhibit, we were handed "tickets" featuring the names of passengers that once walked the decks of that legendary ship. Passing through actual replicas of first and third class rooms, I was educated on life aboard the great Titanic. From the cost of tickets to the quality of rooms, it was not what I expected. For example, third class rooms featured bunk beds with real mattresses. The beds were mahogany and beautiful in their simplicity, although the rooms were tiny. Sharing the room with three strangers, most speaking a different language, would have been uncomfortable for me. Further along, we hovered over recovered china and clothing, shoes and perfume. The perfume display featured tiny holes in each side and sniffing alongside the display you could actually smell the perfumes, which were buried at the bottom of the ocean until their discovery. Wine and Champagne, some left inside a corked bottle, made up another display. I was stunned to see how well preserved these items were. Looking over a display of coins and bills from around the world, I was instantly chilled and it made me think of the many lost souls that may be among the living. In the exhibit, one wall holds the names of all passengers, grouped according to class. It was now my job to look up my passenger ticket names and see if mine were among the lost. Thankfully, I carried survivors, and with a lighter heart, I continued on. Many of the artifacts belonged to those who died tragically. You could feel the heaviness and often, I wanted to stop and cry for those that were needlessly lost. After leaving the exhibit, we made our way back to the "petting tank" so we could end our experience on a lighter note. We laughed and played, and Logan almost fell in the shallow water. Notice his wet hair in the video above! We were both soaked when we decided to head for the exit. We left through the Beyond The Reef gift shop, stopping to pick up a few souvenirs. We picked up a red shark tee for Sam and I bought Logan a glow in the dark jellyfish to set on his desk. I wanted one for myself, but there is always next time! I am thinking about spending a night at the Aquarium! Now that would be fun! If I do, I'll be sure to give you a full report!

1 comment:

  1. Oh I am green with envy! I love love love to do things like this. We used to live near the Tulsa Zoo when I was much younger, and I would walk over every day they were open.
    In the mornings we could hear when it was feeding time. It would sound like a jungle in the back yard. :)