Georgia Aquarium reveals its mysteries

By Ed Brock

A massive white curtain, the size of the biggest plasma screen TV one might imagine, dropped - revealing a swirling school of fish Tuesday in downtown Atlanta.

The sight, however, was more dazzling than any screen could offer.

Like Willy Wonka ushering the Golden Ticket holders into the chocolate factory, Home Depot co-founder and Georgia Aquarium benefactor Bernie Marcus proudly unveiled just a small portion of the ship-shaped structure currently being built near Centennial Olympic Park. The rest remained cloaked in the cloud of secrecy that has surrounded the $200 million aquarium since day one.

The star of a show straight out "Finding Nemo," cruised through the sapphire blue water with incredible grace for an animal roughly the size of a sport-utility vehicle. At 13 feet, Norton - the smaller of two whale sharks that are the centerpiece of the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta - glided past the giant window as a preview of even more impressive sights to come.

Marcus promised the gathered members of the media that he would reveal the rest of the aquarium "bit by bit" leading up to its scheduled opening on Nov. 23.

"I thought I'd invite you all into our little dining room," Marcus said, sitting on a lighted stage in the aquarium's ballroom. "I'm not sure there's another venue in this city with this kind of ambiance."

The ballroom, which would be available to leasing by private parties, features two windows looking out on the aquarium's massive saltwater tank. For Tuesday's media event Marcus opened one of the windows, through which Norton and his companion, 15-foot 6-inch Ralph, eagerly downed their food, the tiny shrimp know as krill.

A sizable hammerhead shark sharing the tank was dwarfed by the two giants which are fed 17 pounds of krill during each of two daily feedings. The whale sharks were captured off the coast of Taiwan and flown in with great secrecy 8,000 miles to Georgia. And they are just teenagers, about 14-years-old each, that are expected to reach 45 feet in length when they mature in about five years. Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the ocean.

But Marcus said he didn't bring the two fish all this way just for entertainment purposes. They will also be studied to find out how they can be preserved.

"This is not an endangered fish yet but it will be," Marcus said. "We're trying to find a way to repopulate the earth with these fish."

Likewise, the aquarium, while it is intended as a source of entertainment for fish-lovers young and old, has another mission, too.

"More importantly it is to bring conventions here that are looking for a different venue," Marcus said. "We're hoping that this is going to help bring business to the city of Atlanta."

Marcus shrugged off questions regarding the possible boycott of the aquarium by civic groups who oppose the benefactor's call for a ban on panhandling in Atlanta, especially around the aquarium. The Atlanta City Council is still considering the ban.

Critics have reportedly said that the ordinance discriminates against the poor and have demanded that Marcus hire some of the homeless people at the aquarium. Marcus said Tuesday that he had no comment.

"(The aquarium is) going to have an economic benefit," Marcus said. "It's going to put people to work."

Before dropping the curtain to show off Ralph and Norton, Marcus and his wife Billi Marcus donned suisse chef jackets and did some cooking with famed chef Wolfgang Puck. Puck's catering company, along with Restaurant Associates and Atlanta restaurateur Pano Karatassos will provide the food services for the aquarium.

"I don't know of any city in the world where you could go and do a party ... in a space like this," Puck said. "I wish you could bring this to L.A. I really think this is going to be the new diamond here for Atlanta."

The aquarium is also trying to get two Beluga whales from an amusement park in Mexico City. With 5 million gallons of water in its tanks, the 460,000 square-foot aquarium will contain about 100,000 to 120,000 animals from 500 different species.

Information on booking events at the aquarium, available jobs and volunteer opportunities are available at www.georgiaaquarium.org.