As much as I love visiting museums on the down-low, seeing what the typical visitor (who doesn’t write blog posts about the experience) sees, there’s something to be said for behind-the-scenes tours. And holy balls what a tour it was at the Georgia Aquarium.
First of all, a big thanks goes out to Jen Richards, our unofficial tour guide. The Georgia Aquarium has some pretty great behind-the-scenes tours — want to SCUBA dive in the whale shark tank? you can! — but I doubt any of them are as intimate as Jen’s tour was for just me and Ryan. Plus, ours was free.
Jen’s story is heartening to anyone who’s looking to start a museum career: she came to the Georgia Aquarium as a volunteer, and turned it into a full time paying gig as a trainer. No, she’s not a dolphin trainer, she teaches classes on marine conservation. For us, this meant that she could not only identify every species we encountered, she often knew the individuals.
Speaking of marine conservation, the Georgia Aquarium is very involved in research and restoration. Take, for example, its whale sharks. The Aquarium has four whale sharks in a massive tank, and they’ve been studying how these filter-feeding sharks actually eat their food. While the mouth is quite large, the throat is very small, and rather than use teeth to pierce or chew, they use modified gill rakers to filter plankton, krill, larvae and eggs from the water. Their filtration system is so good, they can differentiate grains of rice from their normal food (yes, the Aquarium tried it)! The Aquarium has also been conducting field research on the animals since 2005, focusing right now on the mysterious annual gathering of whale sharks in the Yucatan. Call it a whale-shark moot if you will.
One of the great things about the Aquarium is that even the non-public space contains mini exhibits with tanks, panels and labels, which gives the impression that the Aquarium has its visitors in mind all the time. Even the hallways are lined with research posters, marine life sculpture and photography, species silhouettes for size and shape comparison, and even a “camouflage wall” meant to teach kids that camo is relative to your background. Another such non-public-yet-educational space is the area above the tropical reef tank. Seeing the reef from down below, you’re looking at beautiful fish and coral and clear water. Seeing the reef from above, you suddenly understand just how much work it takes to artificially create that environment, which in my case helped me appreciate just how astounding our natural reefs ecosystems are.
First, there’s the sheer quantity of water that needs to be perfectly chemically balanced and added to the system. Staff have to check the chemical makeup of the water in every tank multiple times a day to keep it calibrated, and compounds are constantly added and removed, which takes a lot of different containers of crazy hues. Every two minutes, the reef gets an influx of new water, and that’s just one of the many many exhibition tanks at the Georgia Aquarium; given that the Georgia Aquarium is the largest in the world, you can imagine how much water they use on a daily basis, and this water must be guaranteed from the city. All day long there are heat/light lamps shining on the surface of the reef tank, but lamps alone aren’t enough, so the Aquarium has a huge skylight just for the tropical reef for more light. This light is so important that through a city ordinance, the Aquarium actually controls all the airspace above the skylight, which means they can block skyscrapers from being built that would cast shadows over the reef.
Then there’s the coral. Most aquarium coral reefs aren’t made of living coral (mostly because it’s illegal to take coral from a living reef, so if you’re starting from scratch, you can’t use the real thing), but the Georgia Aquarium grows its own coral, and is slowly trying to replace the dead matter in its tanks with the living colonies it breeds. Not only that, but they’re taking these coral colonies out into the Florida Keys to replace staghorn and elkhorn coral in reefs that have been damaged.
When you’re above the tropical reef tank, you can get up close to the coral and mangrove nurseries, the shallow “shoals” where sharks are hatched and grown, the system through which water is filtered and proteins removed (ohhh, so that’s what that sea foam is…), and the room where all the various organisms are grown to feed the animals in the exhibits. Seeing all this work, you begin to understand why an adult ticket costs $30. It’s an eye-opening, educational experience, one which I wish was available to regular visitors.