ATLANTA -- Coral reefs, ocean waters, and thousands of brilliantly colored fish are not what typically come to mind when one thinks of Atlanta. But with the recent opening of the world's largest aquarium smack in the middle of this land-locked Southern city, undersea adventure becomes its newest hallmark.
Resembling a giant glass-and-metal ark big enough to hold 230 average-size homes, the Georgia Aquarium attracted international attention even before it opened 2 1/2 weeks ago. More than 2.4 million visitors are expected in the first year.
The superlatives speak for themselves: The building boasts the most square footage of any aquarium in the world (half a million), the most fish (100,000 animals representing 500 species from around the globe), and the most water (8 million gallons).
It houses the world's biggest fish (two whale sharks), one of the biggest indoor living coral reef exhibits, and the largest viewing window in North America.
But the experience of the Georgia Aquarium goes beyond statistics. Visiting is like going on a trip, one that takes you outside yourself and your everyday life, and traveling through this watery world, you almost become part of it.
The effect is immediate. As you walk through the front doors, you enter a hallway flanked by walls of fish, floor-to-ceiling tanks that lead the way to the central atrium. Everything is soft shades of blue, curved and undulating, with lighting that suggests rays of sunlight through water. Seating is surrounded by bubbling fountains, and a continuously changing light show plays on a rippling 25-by-150-foot wave wall.
The atrium is the hub of the center, and each of the five themed exhibit galleries flows from it. Visit all of them and you will walk through a 100-foot underwater tunnel that runs through the home of the giant spotted whale sharks Ralph and Norton (''Those things can't be real. They must be some sort of Disney creation," said one wonder-struck visitor).
You can feel stingrays, anemones, and starfish in the numerous touch tanks. Gaze into the living art that is the coral reef exhibit. Enjoy the antics of otters and penguins and watch the ballet of schools of stingrays in motion.
And come face-to-face with beluga whales. Ah, those beautiful belugas. Sinewy white with porpoise-like faces, they twirl through their tanks like five marble sculptures come to life, swimming alongside the clear wall and interacting with their spellbound human guests. On media day, reporters clustered at the tank, speaking in reverential, hushed whispers.
For children, the aquarium has more hands-on, play-oriented activities than most other marine facilities (crawl-through tunnels with domed viewing windows, a huge whale slide, interactive media). A full 25 percent of the activities are dedicated exclusively to school groups and teachers. There's also a 3D/4D theater.
The aquarium was the dream of Bernie Marcus, cofounder of The
''We talked about a lot of things, like a new symphony hall," said Billi Marcus. ''But who is that really for? My friends. Not the mailman, not the kids' teachers." They decided that an aquarium was the way to go.
The pair made a whirlwind tour of aquariums around the world, visiting 56 facilities in 13 countries in three months. They then paired marine specialists with theatrical designers to make their vision of a unique and totally engaging experience a reality.
Construction began in 2003 and was completed in an astounding 28 months.
''It was a figment of my imagination," said Bernie Marcus. ''And you're always concerned . . . I really didn't know if it was going to make it."
He smiled. ''But my three grandchildren were here today and they said it's unbelievable. So we are home free."
Contact Laurel-Ann Dooley, a freelance writer in Atlanta, at LaurelannD@aol.com.