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Aquarium well worth the wait

Recently, I took a vacation day planning to sleep in, have a leisurely lunch with my wife and then visit the new Georgia Aquarium in the afternoon.

Planning ahead, I had gone online to purchase tickets and was surprised to find that most days were sold out. The aquarium offers tickets on its Web site to be pre-purchased for each hour, based on anticipated visitor traffic, and when I discovered they had 150 tickets left between 2 and 3 on a Friday afternoon, I quickly bought two online.

We had a few unplanned problems crop up early in the day so we didn't get away as early as planned, arriving at the aquarium at 2:15 p.m.

The line to get into the parking deck was about a block long and after about a 10-minute wait we finally found a spot on the third level of the parking deck. The walk from the parking area to the main entrance of the facility is about a block and a half, so when you go there be prepared, and if it is cold, bundle up.

By the time we lined up and waited our turn to be electronically scanned we were feeling the cold as were several other folks around us who also did not come dressed warmly enough to spend that long outdoors.

The electronic scanning is done to protect the visitors as well as the animals. Guns or knives could seriously damage both, but aquarium officials also are on the lookout for gum or candies that could be harmful to the animals. Despite the fact we were quite a bit later than the time shown on our admission tickets, we finally got inside.

Once inside we discovered that we had failed to realize the kids were out of school that day. A word of advice if you go is to make sure the kids are in school the day you go. If you visit with your kids, I hope they are much better supervised than those we saw and heard last week. Maybe I'm just getting old but it seems to me that kids were much better behaved a decade or so ago.

The aquarium sits on 91⁄2 acres of land adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta. It is a 500,000-square-foot facility housing more than 100,000 animals in 8 million gallons of fresh and salt water.

The exterior of the building is designed to look like a giant ship breaking through a wave. As you enter the huge atrium inside the building, you are led into the facility by "a wall of fish." You then have the choice of entering five galleries.

Each gallery is easily identified by an icon and signage at the entrance: Georgia Explorer has a light house; River Scout displays a cascading waterfall; Cold Water Quest has an ice covered cliff; Ocean Voyager offers a peek window into the huge habitat; and Tropical Diver has two video screens displaying the perspective of a fish on a reef.

There are 60 habitats at the Georgia Aquarium with 12,000 square feet of viewing windows. These acrylic windows are awesome and provide excellent viewing access to the animals.

The largest habitat holds 6.2 million gallons of water and is 33 feet deep. It was specially designed to house whale sharks along side tens of thousands of other animals that typically live along a coral reef and out in the open ocean. The 100-foot-long viewing tunnel and one of the largest aquarium windows in the world allow views into the whale shark habitat.

The second largest habitat, 800,000 gallons, was specially designed as a natural habitat for the five beluga whales. The idea of a viewing theater window wall into the whale shark and coral reef habitats provides space for people to sit and relax a while as the animals frolic in front of you.

All in all this is a spectacular place, except for the unruly kids and some equally unruly adults. Maybe all the discourteous folks decided to visit at the same time we showed up or maybe I'm just too fussy. At least half the people had digital or cell phone cameras and seemed more interested in what they could capture on digital chips than what they could see with their own eyes. One lady rushed from viewport to viewport, pushing others aside to get her photos. Others put their cameras up against the windows to take flash pictures, despite signs saying that the flash may disturb or be harmful to the animals.

There is a terrific area to interact with rays, small sharks and crabs in an easy-to-reach tank. Folks use two fingers to touch these animals and the rays seemed particularly inclined to swim up to the hands eager to feel their sleek bodies.

To sum up, if you decide to visit, do so on a weekday after the holidays. Feeding occurs about 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so try to schedule the visit to coincide before or during those times. Understand, however, that after they are fed they aren't going to be as active as normal. Just as you relax after a big meal, so do the sea lions, penguins and whales.

Rick Rae is vice president of Gray Publishing LLC and publisher of the Rockdale Citizen, sister paper of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at rick.rae@graypub.com.