So, yes. It was, mostly, a very, very good day off. Hopefully, today will be another. We reached the Georgia Aquarium about twelve thirty, and I immediately realized that I'd been horribly wrong in my belief that the kids were back in school and all this holiday vacation nonsense was over and done with for another year. The place was deluged in tourists, and most of them had children and rowdy teens in tow. It took us about forty-five minutes from the time we parked until the time we were allowed into the aquarium. In between, we stood in a long amusement-park sort of line (even though we're aquarium members) that ended in an airport-style security search. My bag was searched. I was scanned with the little wandy thing. At least I didn't have to take off my frelling shoes. It does seem rather absurd, all that security for an aquarium. But this is the "new normal," the age of post-9/11 paranoia, and we were, it should be noted, standing only a hundred yards or so from the spot where Eric Robert Rudolph set off one of his bombs in Olympic Centennial Park (July 1996). So, I tried to be forgiving about being treated like a potential threat to life, limb, and national security just because I wanted to go to the aquarium. Besides, it gave me time to realize how incredibly ugly the outside of the Georgia Aquarium is, a gaudy cathedral of blue and orange aluminum held together with silicone caulking, and also to notice how many women were wearing velour. Ew. I don't get it. Velour was tacky in the 1970s, and it somehow manages to be at least twice as tacky today, and yet here are all these women in velour blouses and pants suits and jogging suits. Ew, I say.
Anyway, when we were finally inside, I was greeted not with an aquarium, but with a bizarre amalgam of theme park (hence the lines, I suppose), shopping mall, and food court. Oh, there were fish, but they seemed entirely secondary to all the rest. The aquarium part of the Georgia Aquarium is divided into five main areas, based on ecosystems, and a sixth area that's some sort of 3-D theatre affair. But in the middle of it all is this gigantic frelling food court, stinking of greasy food-court pizza and sandwiches. We would soon learn that the aquarium had been designed so that it is essentially impossible to enter or exit any one of the display areas without walking through the food court. And there was all this light and giant video monitors and huge styrofoam statues of cartoon fish...all of which might have been fine at Epcot or Disney World or something, but I still think of aquaria the way I think of museums. They should be darkish and dignified and stately, just like museums (yes, I know many museums have abandoned this demeanor in the age of shrinking budgets and "infotainment," but I persist). And crammed into all this colourful chaos were several thousand tourists, most of them, it seemed, from various rural parts of Georgia, Mississppi, Alabama, and Tennessee where personal hygiene has yet to be discovered. It felt more like a NasCar crowd. It was icky and then some. We almost left. But, damn it, I'd come to see fish and swore I would not be swayed from my course by velour, stinky food courts, or redneck tourists.
And that's a good thing, because once you get in and through all the crap and clatter, there are some truly stunning creatures at the Georgia Aquarium. Sure, we could hardly see many of them for all the people, but what we could see was marvelous. The five belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) were a delight. A couple of them had been rescued from a Mexican amusement park where they'd been kept in a warmish tank beneath a roller coaster (?!?), and they had the scars and lesions to prove it. But they were still beautiful. Other highlights included a giant Pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini), the whale sharks (which I'd never seen before up close), a guitarfish (Rhinobatus productus), enormous Japanese spider crabs (Macrocheira kaempferi), leafy sea dragons of two or three species, sea otters (Enhydra lutris), a small but impressive kelp forest display, enormous "flocks" of cow-nosed rays (Rhinoptera bonasus), and a gorgeous tank containing numerous species of African cichlids. Neat stuff. The big tank in the "Ocean Voyager" area is probably the coolest thing in the place. I used to snorkel off the coast of Gulf Shores, and the sights in that tank were very nostalgic.
But we only saw about half the aquarium. By four o'clock or so we were so fed up with all the people we decided to call it a day and come back some other time, some slow day. We didn't make it into the "Tropical Diver" area or the "Georgia Explorer" area at all. Spooky dubbed the latter the "Hokeyfenokee," and rightly so, based on the decor of its cheesy entryway. Though the animals themsleves are wonderful and appear to be very well taken care of, I was dismayed at the lack of information presented with the exhibits. More than half the time, you'd have no idea what you were seeing or where it had come from unless you just happened to be a marine biology buff or bothered one of the poor, beleagured docents. Ecosystems were presented, but absolutely no mention was made anywhere that I saw — and I looked — that almost every one of the ecosystems were threatened and many of the species were endangered or near extinction. Well, this is Georgia, but still. That was perhaps the single most alarming oversight in the place. I was amazed to see a mention of evolution on a stingy little text panel accompanying a display of ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei). I'm sure there have already been complaints. All in all, I give the Georgia Aquarium so-so marks, even if they did spend a fortune to have the largest, gaudiest aquarium on earth. I've been to far better and far worse. Mostly, I wish it felt a little more like an aquarium and a little less like a theme park. Oh, and I was left stupefied and speechless by the women filing past the giant octopus and loudly proclaiming how "ugly" and "gross" she was. If it were my aquarium, that would have been grounds for immediate expulsion, after a mandatory cephalopod sensitivity seminar.
Here are three of Spooky's photos (behind the cut for those who care not for fishy things). I may post some more tomorrow:
A lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) glides by over our heads.
The exquisite giant Pacific octopus.
A whale shark turns away...