georgia aquarium

Under the Sea: The Georgia Aquarium

COVID-19 has affected every single aspect of life on this earth in 2020. It has changed where we go, how we gather, and what we can partake in safely. The same quarantine that kept us safe has endangered many public entities – including museums, aquariums and zoos.

Museums are essential contributors to the education of a society, serving as preservers of history, institutions of research, and conservationists of life. Aquariums and zoos encompass all these functions and more, bringing the wild to us in civilization, protecting wildlife, and providing critical research to keep sustain species.

Museums: An Endangered Species

In this time, museums have made adjustments (like those listed here) to continue to offer programming during this time of shutdowns and limited capacity. However, the reduction of paying ticket holders is sure to create long-term challenges, for museums. most of which are nonprofit organizations. A survey conducted by the American Alliance of Museums found the following:

The survey results document extreme financial distress in the museum field. One-third (33%) of respondents were not confident they would be able to survive 16 months without additional financial relief, and 16 percent felt their organization was at significant risk of permanent closure. The vast majority (87%) of museums have only 12 months or less of financial operating reserves remaining, with 56% having less than six months left to cover operations. Forty-four percent had furloughed or laid off some portion of their staff, and 41 percent anticipated reopening with reduced staff.

A strong majority of museums (64%) predicted that budget cuts would significantly affect the services they offered. Museums, aquariums, and zoos are continuing to serve us even though we cannot serve them to the degree they need us to.

My Visit To Georgia Aquarium

I normally try to travel as much as possible, but the quarantine obviously and immediately canceled all of my plans. One of the things I was most looking forward to about leaving corporate America was traveling at will. A few weeks ago, I took my first trip this year to Atlanta.

I absolutely love museums; they are my favorite attractions to visit in my travels. While staying at the Hyatt Regency, I found myself within reasonable walking distance of several attractions in the Centennial Park District, one of which is the Georgia Aquarium. I was admittedly nervous about going under the conditions, but upon reviewing the museum’s policies, my fears were somewhat quelled, and I decided to give it a try.

GA Aquarium COVID-19 Protocol

Like most museums, the Georgia Aquarium is utilizing a timed entry system. You must buy your tickets in advance. I went on a Thursday, and had no issue getting my ticket online about 15 minutes before I went in. When you get there, they utilize an entrance through the parking garage, which is hard to navigate on foot. I almost missed my entry time fooling with the signage. Once you get to the entrance, there is a touchless temperature screening and a photo taken of you.

Once you get inside the aquarium, things get a little bit tricky. The cafe is open right now, but care has been taken to limit the seating. Inside the exhibits, there are plexiglass partitions on some of the larger tanks and markers all over the floor reminding people to move in one direction and keep a safe social distance. There are also timed reservations for some of the exhibits to limit capacity. Also, there were hand sanitizing stations everywhere. HOWEVER, I am realizing this only works as well as patrons following the protocols.

Aquarium Etiquette

Let’s chat about museum and aquarium etiquette for a second. I went around 11am, which is much later than I normally go to any museum. After about 10am you get parents bringing their kids before lunchtime other people that slept in. The museum was not at capacity, but it was quite busy. This, combined with the one way flows made some of the exhibits more susceptible to crowding.

  1. Follow the bouncing ball – I mean social distancing markers.
  2. Six foot distancing requirements + one way traffic + crowds = slower flow. DO NOT HOG THE EXHIBITS. I know we get caught up in the awe of what we see, and we want to linger. Don’t linger so long that the line backs up behind you.
  3. Observe the handicap markers. There were quite a few visitors in wheelchairs when I went. There are designated handicap mats in certain areas due to the grade of the floor and other reasons. I saw way too many of them not be able to utilize those designated spots.
  4. Don’t touch the glass. If ever there was a time NOT to touch stuff, it would be right now.

With that being said, I was satisfied with the museums protocols, but disappointed in other patrons’ behavior. But such is humanity.

Georgia Aquarium Permanent Exhibits

Georgia Aquarium Tropical Diver

Tropical Diver

The design of the aquarium was a bit overwhelming at first, so I just started in the Tropical Diver exhibit. {Evidently, Tropical Diver is supposed to be the end of our Georgia Aquarium experience, but oh well!) Tropical Diver explores the Indo-Pacific Barrier Reef, with a gorgeous array of over 90 species of underwater creatures.

  • Georgia Aquarium clown anemonefish
  • Jelly Fish
  • Orange Cup Coral

Do you remember reading books or watching cartoons about the ocean when you were a child? Well, this is the area that seems to have the most real-life representation of that world. There are also mesmerizing jellyfish to admire, like stars in the night sky.

One thing to note is that the clown anemonefish caused quite the bottleneck as children and their parents clamored to “find Nemo” and linger awhile.

Cold Water Quest

Cold Water Quest takes us further into the deep, showcasing animals that live in the coldest parts of our globe, like the giant pacific octopus Australian weedy sea dragons. It is in this gallery that we get up close and personal with the museums birds. The GA Aquarium features puffins and an African penguin habitat with tunnels and pop-up windows. I recall these being closed during my visit, but assuming the world returns to normal at some point, you may get an opportunity to get a closer look.

  • African Penguin
  • Southern Sea Otter
  • Japanese Spider Crab

When you enter the gallery, you are greeted by a touch tank with starfish at the entrance (to be enjoyed visually for the time being) and long-legged spider crabs. There is also a Southern sea otter exhibit with a deck where you can get a behind-the-scenes look at how the trainers and animals interact.

The Beluga whales were my favorite animals to watch, as I was able to catch them gracefully swimming about and playfully tussling over a blue blanket without a care in the world.

River Scout

River Scout is the Aquarium’s sole freshwater showcase, sponsored by the Southern Company. The gallery houses an alligator exhibit that can also be viewed from below through a glass floor.

In my humble opinion, this was the weakest exhibit in the museum. There are crawl tunnels and observation scopes, but they were closed due to COVID-19. The exhibit seems largely reliant on these features, leaving much to be desired.

Ocean Voyager

Ocean Voyager at the Georgia Aquarium is the crown jewel of the galleries. Holding an impressive 6.3 million gallons of water, Ocean Voyager is one of the largest single aquatic exhibits in the world. This exhibit is home to the aquarium’s whale sharks, which are the largest fish species in the world.

Whale Shark

This was by far one of the best experiences in the aquarium. Upon entering the 100-foot tunnel tank, you step onto a moving sidewalk, treating you to a near-360 degree view of the 50+ species that call it home.

  • Goliath Grouper
  • Green Moray Eel
  • Green Sea Turtle
  • Manta Ray
  • Ocean Voyager Tank
  • Ocean Voyager Tunnel
  • Ocean Voyager Fish

Sliding through the exhibit on the “conveyor belt” created the perfect opportunity to slow down and really take in the majesty of the sea.

Georgia Aquarium Aqua Lab

Aqualab

The best way I can describe the Aqualab is that it is the “children’s museum” within the Aquarium.

  • Aqua Lab
  • Bioluminescence
  • Dive Challenge

Pier 225

While waiting to begin my dolphin experience, I stopped by Pier 225. This exhibit is out on the main floor and houses the California sea lions. Pier 225 houses rescued sea lions and highlights the museum’s efforts to research and conserve them.

California Sea Lions
California Sea Lions

Much like the dolphins, there is also a trainer-led presentation, Under the Boardwalk, showcasing the Sea Lions. For an additional fee, you can get closer to the action with a 30-minute interactive Sea Lion Encounter.

Nearby is the stingray touch pool, which was open for petting the velvety chordates.

Stingray Touch Pool
Stingray Touch Pool at Pier 225

Georgia Aquarium Interactive Experiences

Dolphin Coast

Dolphin Coast is home to the Georgia Aquarium’s common bottlenose dolphins. This was the first of the semi-interactive experiences I had during my visit. From the main floor there is an escalator leading up to the lobby where you can enjoy the dolphins frolicking in their tank.

During your time on the Dolphin Coast, you can watch Dolphins In Depth, a live presentation. This show is free, but it is ticketed. The museum has integrated QR codes and text ticketing, so it completely touchless. You may purchase reserved seating, but I didn’t find it necessary. I was able to ticket about 15 minutes before my show and get the seat I wanted. There are roughly 1800 seats, with every other row blocked off. Ushers require there to be at least four empty seats between each party.

Inside the Dolphin Theater

The show was the perfect combination of education and entertainment, with the trainers providing facts about the dolphins and while demonstrating how they are trained. The trainers seem genuinely invested in conservation and relationships with the animals, and they do a great job of engaging the crowd.

Now, there is a portion of the demonstration where the dolphins are trained to splash water toward the audience. The first ten rows are the designated “soak zone,” in which you are all but guaranteed to get wet. Ordinarily, I would never sit in such a place, but felt like living for once and decided to sit in row 8. And boy, did they deliver on the guarantee! I didn’t get nearly as wet as the folks in the first 6 rows, but let’s just say it was a very “ashy” walk back to my hotel. Thank God it almost 90 degrees that day!

4D Theater

An underwhelming short cut of Happy Feet was playing in the 4D theater. This would be fun for children, but worth skipping if you are short on time.

All in all, I enjoyed my day at the Georgia Aquarium. It is a worthwhile excursion to pass the time and escape from the real world. As with anything, the safety protocols are only as effective as we are at following them, so WEAR YOUR MASK, WASH YOUR HANDS, and WATCH YOURSELF (and your distance). If we all do these things we can stop COVID-19 or slow the spread until we can. In the words of Jerry Springer, “Take care of yourselves and each other.”

Did you know you can enjoy the Georgia Aquarium from the comfort and safety of your own home? Check their virtual tours or free webcams.

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