15 December 2006

Georgia Aquarium

For the past three years we have zipped down to Atlanta two weeks before Christmas for a weekend get-together with Ana Hardy, Jenny's roommate from P.A. school. Ana and Jenny shared a passion for running and remarkable study skills. Ana named her daughter, Jennifer, after Jenny, and her children are just weeks older than Ellie and Owen.

Ana lives in Southern California now, but her family are in Florida. Every year, then, she drops by Atlanta, which is about halfway between our home and her family.

We've spent the last few years in Stone Mountain, which is frighteningly cold on most December Saturdays. This year we splurged and grabbed tickets to the new Georgia Aquarium.
In many ways, the Georgia Aquarium symbolizes so much of what makes the city of Atlanta both fascinating and infuriating. It is massive--the largest aquarium in the world--but it lacks the coherence and focus that could make it a real educational colossus. It sits in downtown Atlanta, across from Centennial Olympic Park and just down the street from the Georgia Dome, yet one wonders what these gleaming wonders have to do with each other.
(Right next door, they are building the new World of Coca-Cola. No doubt someday an Atlanta will create a species of fish that can survive swimming in Coke, and they will be able to combine the museums!)
Consider other aquariums. The aquarium in Chattanooga sits next to the river, and the architecture compliments the natural surroundings. Aquariums I've visited in Monterrey, Baltimore and Boston all sit just off the harbor, tied to their natural surroundings.
There is no river in Atlanta (one can drive north and west of town to reach the Chattahoochie). There is no harbor for obvious reasons. So why did they build the world's largest aquarium there? Why did they have the Centennial Olympic Games there in 1996?! Because it could be done and it was done to show that Atlanta was one of the Great Cities. Sorry, but I'm a little sceptical when cities try this hard to be something--anything that will be great. Why, just a generation ago, Atlanta was still all about Scarlett O'Hara and Civil War nostalgia!
Criticism of Atlanta aside, the aquarium was a real treat. Divided into five distinct wings, it is really five different aquariums sharing the same roof. One wing deals with aquaculture unique to Georgia's waters. It included a real shrimp boat and a right whale which doubled as a slide, down which the kids got from the 2nd floor back to the ground. There were plenty of hands-on activities with horseshoe crabs, starfish, and rays.
The river scene is the most eclectic exhibit, which also makes it one of the more confusing. The displays are poorly labeled (I'm sure this will come along later), so sometimes it's hard to connect the fish with any names or habitats. I did like the electric eels, as well as two exhibits where the fish swam above us. This was cool, but I couldn't really get the point because of the lack of information. The river otters had plenty of toys and a really cool, and they put on a show for us.
The kids really loved the arctic area and its divine belugas. They had a neat seating area where we could take our time watching the beluga whales swim for us. Belugas have such unique smiles and personable expressions, that they are easy to make friends with through the glass. This wing also featured sea otters--the below scene was more interesting than the above view; an octopus (sleeping when we visited), sea lions, and a penguin exhibit into which the kids could peer through a glass bubble in the middle of the colony.
The aquarium's most renowned feature is the HUGE tank that holds, among an array of ocean fish, THREE whale sharks. I enjoyed the sea life theater at the end: a glass wall twice the size of a movie screen through which we could view hundreds of different fish. Jonah and I liked the hammerheads, but there were also sun fish and groupers, too.
The Dittes family loves aquariums--loves them. Owen used to call the Chattanooga Aquarium, "Owen's Aquarium." "Ava's Aquarium" was the one in Gatlinburg, TN. I guess we'll give this one to Jonah--who now insists every day, "I want to go back to the Georgia Aquarium with Jacob and Josh" (his cousins who live in Savannah, GA).
Still, I'm left scratching my head critically. It's an awesome place with every imaginable fish, technology and innovation on display. But what's the point? Aren't we supposed to learn more on our visit than "this aquarium is awesome--the biggest in the world"? That's the only thing I was missing. Maybe I just haven't drunk enough Coca-Cola to care less about these details and revel in yet one more of Atlanta, Georgia's impressive accomplishments.

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