Georgia Aquarium boasts thousands of ocean creatures

For months now, we've been teased with pictures of Norton and Ralph, the whale sharks that will likely become the stars of the Georgia Aquarium.

Finally, it's time to meet the rest of the family.

There's Gaspar, Nico, Marina, Maris and Natasha, the serene beluga whales who perform their graceful dances all day long. There's a grumpy-looking sea turtle who's still young but looks wise beyond his years. There are small, playful river otters who talk back and forth in bird-like chirps.

For metro Atlantans, these animals - and the 100,000 other sea creatures that live at the Georgia Aquarium - will soon become part of our own family. And the aquarium, with a hip, bright decor and a setup more reminiscent of a shopping mall than a museum, will likely become a favorite place to visit.

With more than 8 million gallons of water and a price tag of about $290 million, the Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the world. It was dreamed up and paid for by Home Depot mogul Bernie Marcus. The aquarium's crown jewels are the whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, swimming in a tank that's 284 feet long and 30 feet deep.

Aquarium executive director Jeff Swanagan recommended visitors budget at least four hours to exploring the aquarium. And if you're local, he recommends buying an annual pass.

"The aquarium looks different at different times of the day," Swanagan said. "When you come in the morning, the sunlight is going one way, and in the afternoon, it's totally different."

Swanagan should know - he's been working on the Georgia Aquarium project for the past four years.

What to expect

In the Ocean Voyager tank, which Marcus refers to as the "big tank," the famous whale sharks rub fins with hammerhead sharks, largetooth sawfish, giant grouper, tarpons and giant manta rays. The tank can be viewed in the aquarium ballroom as well as the Ocean Voyager exhibit, which takes visitors through a tunnel that runs through the center of the tank. It ends at the Ocean Voyager Theater, a breathtaking window into the sea.

The tank has acrylic walls that are nearly two feet thick and has a 1,620-square-food window that's the nation's largest aquarium window.

Over in the Cold Water Quest exhibit, visitors can meet the five ghostly, white beluga whales. The whales in this exhibit came from different parts of the world. The males, Gaspar and Nico, were rescued from Mexico, where they'd been held in a chlorine pool. The boys are battling bacterial infections and several lesions, but they've adjusted well to the new environment, said an aquarium spokeswoman.

The females, including mother-daughter duo Maris and Natasha, were brought in from a New York aquarium that's undergoing renovations. Aquarium officials are hoping the whales will breed.

A few other audience favorites, including plucky African penguins and playful California sea lions and sea otters, make their home in Cold Water Quest as well. It's also where you'll meet the real-life inspiration for the aquarium mascot, the Nemo-like Deepo - the bright orange garibaldi fish.

Fish swim over visitors' heads in the fresh water River Scout exhibit - a river runs through the ceiling at one point.

"You can see the fish bellies overhead," Swanagan said.

A floor-to-ceiling window peeks into a live tropical coral reef in the Tropical Diver exhibit. It's filled with thousands of small, colorful fish, including clown anemonefish, yellow tangs, flame angelfish and surgeonfish. In separate tanks, jellyfish float, wraithlike, in tanks with different colored backgrounds.

Marcus said he thinks children will ultimately embrace the Georgia Explorer exhibit as their favorite. It's meant to educate young people about how, even though we're hours away in metro Atlanta, Georgia is a coastal state. Kids can get up close to small bonnethead sharks, Southern stingrays and cownose rays and even reach in and touch them in a large touch tank. They can also touch brown shrimp, hermit crabs, sea stars and horseshoe crabs.

A huge play set, including two slides and several tunnels, makes up the center of the exhibit.

The aquarium's school group program is innovative as well. Students taking field trips will enter through a separate door and get a look at a side of the aquarium most visitors don't see. They'll walk the education loop, which runs around the second level along the top of the aquarium tanks.

With plenty of touch tanks, interactive exhibits and hallway-length murals, the school program is meant to teach children about the impact humans have on the environment, including oceans, said aquarium education director Brian Davis.

The nuts and bolts

The aquarium is not just about the fish - it also houses two gift shops and Cafe Aquaria, a food court serving everything from pizza, burgers and hot dogs to cookies, pie and brownies.

Marcus also orchestrated a collaboration with world-famous cook Wolfgang Puck, who will oversee the catering for special events held in the aquarium's ballroom. Puck said he was attracted to the chance to design events for what he expects will be a world-class aquarium. The ballroom, with two windows peeking into two of the aquarium's biggest tanks, is an interesting place to host an event, he said.

"Most venues you work in are normally boring ballrooms. They all look the same," Puck said. "I'd love to do something where you keep the windows closed at first and then open them and dazzle them with the glorious creatures."

He said his catering menus will feature choices from two restaurants, including Spago. Visitors can expect to eat risotto, lamb chops and even Southern-inspired fried chicken.

And yes, he will serve some seafood. But his choices, such as miso-glazed salmon and Maine lobster, will be meant to help people learn about the benefits of eating sustainable seafood, rather than endangered animals.

If you go

•What: Georgia Aquarium

•When: Operating hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Sunday, with a timed ticketing process. After Sunday, the aquarium will be open from

9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

•Where: 225 Baker St. in Atlanta

•Cost: $22.75 for adults, $17 for children ages 3 to 12, $19.50 for seniors 55 and older. Annual passes are $59.50 for adults, $43.25 for children and $48.75 for seniors.

•Info: Visit www.georgiaaquarium.org or call 404-581-4000.