A whale of a time: Georgia Aquarium opens today

ATLANTA - When the world's largest fish tank opens today to the general public, metro Atlantans can finally unwrap the present they've been anticipating for years.

The Georgia Aquarium - which Home Depot mogul Bernie Marcus calls his thank-you gift to the city of Atlanta for helping launch his company - is a $290 million jewel that will figure prominently into the city's economy and worldwide image for decades. Perhaps more importantly, the Georgia Aquarium offers up a great deal of fun and education for visitors of any age.

"Our theme is see things you've never seen before," said Jeff Swanagan, director of the Georgia Aquarium. "Every gallery has something."

That theme begins with the much-ballyhooed presence of two gentle, plankton-loving whale sharks named Norton and Ralph. The largest fish in the ocean and the only of their kind in any aquarium in North America, the whale sharks help make up the main 6.2-million-gallon exhibit. That tank also contains hundreds of other unusual fish, sting rays and shark varieties.

Another tank with five graceful, ghostly white Beluga whales is also one of the facility's main draws.

Then there are more than 100,000 other creatures to inspire and delight in five underwater-themed exhibits. The aquarium feels like anything but a museum - in fact it's more like an extravagant shopping mall with brightly-colored signs, a centrally located eating area with restrooms and separate entrances leading to each exhibit or to an interactive "4-D" theater.

"All the counties in the state are going to benefit from this," Marcus said during a media preview and ribbon-cutting on Saturday. "This is my opportunity to do something for the city that did something for me."