By Ed Brock
With the fearlessness and wide eyes of youth, 9-year-old Sarah Jacobson dipped both hands into a vat of starfish and sea anemones at the Georgia Aquarium.
“Well, the starfish are really smooth,” Jacobson said in her assessment of the experience. “The water was so cold I couldn't really feel the anemone. I think it felt sticky.”
On Saturday Jacobson became one of the first of millions of children who will walk into the world's largest aquarium in downtown Atlanta and find themselves in the kingdom of the sea. And the grown-ups who bring them will be no less amazed by the sight of whale sharks and Beluga whales under glass.
But it was the children that seemed to be most important to Home Depot founder Bernie Marcus, the man who made the aquarium a reality.
“My three granddaughters were here today and they said it's unbelievable,” Marcus said at a ribbon cutting ceremony attended by Gov. Sonny Perdue and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. “We're home free.”
Rising in dark blue above Centennial Park, the front of its building shaped like the prow of a ship, the $290 million Georgia Aquarium was finished in 28 months on land donated by Coca-Cola. It is set to open to the public on Wednesday.
The aquarium holds a record 8 million gallons of water to house more than 100,000 fish, more than any other aquarium in the world according to a Georgia Aquarium fact sheet.
It is divided into five galleries. There's the Georgia Explorer stocked with native animals, the River Scout with its collection of freshwater fish and animals from around the world, the Tropical Diver featuring the color of a coral reef, the Coldwater Quest with its Beluga whales and sea lions and the centerpiece of it all, the Ocean Voyager.
That last gallery, filled with 6 million gallons of water, is the home of 15-foot Ralph and 13-foot Norton, the aquarium's two whale sharks. No other aquarium in North America has whale sharks.
Add to that a -D” theater featuring the aquarium's mascot “Deepo,” the Oceans Ballroom with windows looking out on the Ocean Explorer and Cold Water Quest tanks, the Beyond the Reef and Sand Dollars gift shops and the CafÃ¯ ¿ ½ Aquaria Food Court.
Along with members of the media from all around the world, hundreds of special guests attended Saturday's ribbon cutting, including Sarah Jacobson and her father Michael who live in Sandy Springs.
Jacobson's favorite exhibit so far, along with Ralph and Norton, were the jellyfish in the Tropical Diver section.
“They're really neat and sometimes when it's dark you can see them changing colors,” Jacobson said.
Michael Jacobson said this is the fourth aquarium his daughter has visited, trips that include the aquariums in Chattanooga and New Orleans.
“This one is probably the best,” Sarah Jacobson said. “Because it's big. They took something from every different area and put it in here.”
Sitting in the central lobby that leads to the galleries, Ron Wilson of Atlanta said the aquarium is going to succeed because Marcus “did it right.” And, like the officials who spoke at the ceremony, Wilson is sure it will bring about a revitalization of the downtown area when combined with the new World of Coke and, possibly, a NASCAR museum.
“The city is just bursting at the seams with things of interest,” Wilson said.
When entering the Ocean Voyager, guests at the aquarium stroll through a dizzying tunnel of glass that burrows right through the water. They end up at a vast viewing window that is two stories tall where, along with Ralph and Norton, a great hammerhead shark, bowmouth guitarfish and several giant groupers swim in lazy patterns.
Philip Adams of Cumming, one of the many volunteers working at the aquarium, explains to a pair of guests why one of the groupers was parked in space surrounded by a swarm of yellow fish that seemed to be pecking away at it.
The grouper had just eaten, Adams said.
“Now he's getting his daily cleaning and massage,” Adams said.
An award-winning gymnastics coach, Adams is also a diver so he decided to volunteer at the aquarium to give himself an outlet for his love of sea life.
“This is perfect for me,” Adams said.
The cost of admission to the aquarium is $22.75 for adults, $17 for children ages three to 12 and $19.50 for seniors over 55. An annual pass costs $59.50 for adults, $43.25 for children and $48.75 for seniors. The annual pass includes unlimited visits for one year, a 20 percent discount at the food court and gift shops and priority reservations for pass holders.
Tickets and passes can be purchased at www.georgiaaquarium.org or by calling (404) 581-4000.