It had been a while since our last Behind the Scenes tour at the Georgia Aquarium and I knew there were a lot of changes recently, so I asked if we could come back and check out their “Behind the Seas” tour since the changes. I don’t know why, but behind the scenes makes me feel like I know all of the secrets (even though, they aren’t hiding anything) and makes me appreciate everything going on even more.
First up, you must get a lay of the land. The biggest and most important rule is no touching. Second is making sure you are very careful where you step because there can be water pretty much anywhere and it gets slippery. After the rules, it was time to start our tour. Remember, each tour is a unique experience based on your interests, questions and your guide.
1. The operating room
This is an aquarium operating room. It looks a lot like a human operating room. However, a lot of their equipment is on wheels so they can bring it to the animals. In fact, they said many things are done with the animals in their habitats instead of here in the operating room.
2. The laboratories
We also saw the laboratory facilities, and my heart jumped a little seeing the Analytical Chemistry section (that’s what my Master’s Degree is in!). They had spaces set up for water quality testing and so much more. It’s important that they test all of the water daily to make sure the levels are correct and nothing is growing in there that shouldn’t be.
3. The penguins
The penguin habitat behind the scenes is constantly changing since their breeding cycle is seasonal. In the winter, you’re likely to see chicks. During the summer, you might see adolescents learning to swim.
The Aquarium is also one of the only facilities in the world that breeds the South African penguin, which is currently on the endangered species list. The Aquarium participates in a global Species Survival Plan (SSP) with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to help revitalize the endangered species population. On this visit, we were able to see the introduction of two penguins as potential mates. Since penguins mate for life, the Aquarium creates an environment conducive to the penguins learning how to interact with one another.
Make sure to ask about the beads on their wings, which help the Aquarium staff know the penguins’ sex as well as their name.
4. The Fish Food
I’m not talking about the food for the people, but the nutrition for the aquatic animals. My kids simultaneously thought this was the coolest and also the stinkiest at the same time, so I think it’s a win. They actually eat restaurant sushi-grade food. And, they eat a lot of it. Whale sharks and manta rays are offered almost 100,000 lbs of krill, fish and gel!
You can see the food and the people in the commissary preparing it for all of the animals.
But, yeah, it does have a smell!
5. The Pumps
This is truly behind the scenes.These pumps aren’t quiet and are running non-stop all the time. There are bags and bags of sand for filtering the water and keeping everything as fresh as possible for the different exhibits.
When you go behind the scenes at Tropical Diver, you see more information and an easy to understand diagram of how all of that filtration goes into play with the exhibit.
6. The food chain
Kids learn about the food chain at school, but to be able to see the animals live, see the food they eat being prepared and see it all laid out for them real puts it into perspective.
7. A small ecosystem up close
Yes, you can see a smaller version of a tank up close and personal. My kids liked making the connection with their favorite Disney movie and the tangs that swim around in this tank. They also asked a ton of questions and had them all answered.
8. The big wave / Tropical Diver
Behind the scenes we got to check out the giant tank with the reef and colorful fish (aka Tropical Diver). This giant wall of water goes every 2 minutes or so and generates a huge wave below. We didn’t expect it at all and everybody sort of jumped back as it happened. Not only does this make a big splash, but it helps move oxygen around in the tank. You will also learn that Tropical Diver is 25% live coral.
Off to the back there were other fish hanging out in the shallower water, just asking for their pictures to be taken. With four girls talking, our wonderful tour guide had her hands full with the questions. She answered every one of them with a smile! There were also mangrove trees which we later saw in person on our cruise in Belize City. It was cool to be able to connect those dots.
Don’t forget to look up! There is a huge skylight in Tropical Diver as well as other exhibits. You would never know that natural light was coming in from such a huge source without being behind the scenes.
But there is also help from some colorful lights to really make all of the coral and fish colors pop in a big way.
9. The Coral
We were able to take a peak into one of the many tanks where they were growing coral. It’s amazing how many different varieties there are. This is one of those places where you might want to remind your kids that they aren’t allowed to touch!
Here is where the coral is grown for the Pacific Barrier Reef Habitat! They have a special tank where the coral is grown where they make sure the environment is just right. You can only see this on the Behind the Seas tour.
When asked how many different corals they are growing there, one of the coral experts said “a lot!” So, I think it’s safe to say you will see quite a variety of them.
They all look so unique and different and it’s important to remember that these are habitats for many other sea creatures as well.
10. The Whale Shark Arrival
If you have seen a whale shark, you know how huge they are. You or your kids might be wondering, how in the world did a whale shark even get to the aquarium? There is a great video outlining the entire process from how they got the whale sharks, to how they were flown to the US to how they were lowered into the aquarium. It’s pretty amazing. Naturally, after seeing the video, you will want to actually go to Ocean Voyager to see the Whale Sharks behind the scenes.
11. The Whale Sharks and Manta Rays (and the rest of Ocean Voyager)
Our next stop was Ocean Voyager where the amazing Whale Sharks and Manta Rays live. They seem huge looking through the glass of the aquarium, but oh goodness, when they get that close to you? They are amazing and breath-taking. We stood behind a glass barricade (thank goodness, or else I would have worried somebody might have decided to go for a swim. Not that this is a bad thing.)
In fact, the Aquarium’s Journey with Gentle Giants is the only opportunity in the world where you are guaranteed to swim (snorkel) or SCUBA dive with whale sharks, the biggest fish in the world! There were people snorkeling in Ocean Voyager while we were there.
That’s a whale shark (not really a whale, actually a shark) that eats plankton, not little people. They are so amazingly large and majestic. Just wow. The Manta Ray hung by close to the whale shark. Something fascinating we learned? They have no idea how whale sharks reproduce. And, they have only recently ever seen a smaller (as in not full-size) whale shark. They are a bit of a puzzling creature for sure.
12. Feeding Time with Targets
Because they feed the fish and animals such high quality food and they are in exhibits, they need to make sure they can document what each animal is eating daily. They do this by hand feeding them and using targets so the animals know where they need to come get their food.
In the front of this picture, you can see one animal being fed (I can’t recall which one) and in the background, you can see another being fed.
Looking closer, you will see a green block on the side of the exhibit. I believe this was a manta ray that was getting fed.
Tank the Sea Turtle is also in this exhibit and his target is a whistle.
And, the whale sharks are actually fed with different boats that go out into the water. Each one knowing which boat to go to.
As much as the Aquarium is about looking at the animals and fish, it is more about learning about them and studying them. There is much research being done with the various local colleges and other organizations. They do so much rescue and rehabilitation at the aquarium as well as sharing with other aquariums and research facilities around the world.
The Georgia Aquarium has recently made the “Behind the Seas” tours much more affordable. You will need to purchase your admission ticket, but once you do, the tour is an additional $15 per person (or $12.50 if you are an Aquarium pass holder)
Here are some tips and resources to help you maximize your trip.
- The Animal Guide
- See pictures of various animals and learn more about each one with the click of a mouse or the touch of your finger.
- Use The Georgia Aquarium App
- It will alert you of activities close by
- See the daily schedule
- New Scavenger Hunt Game
- Take tips from tourism experts
- Pay for parking online ahead of time.
- Tuesday and Wednesday mornings are the least crowded times.
- Visit early or late in the day to avoid the busiest times.
- Plan your visit around free activities offered throughout the day.
- AT&T Dolphin Tales: choose your seats no later than 20 minutes before the show, the best seats in the house are at the top of the lower half section.
- Interactive Dive Shows : Tropical Diver and Ocean Voyager galleries have divers that answer visitors questions while underwater
- Animal Feedings: Check out computer screens outside each gallery with daily feeding times for marquee animals.
- Georgia Aquarium provides a beautiful backdrop for photos that are perfect to help your social network follow your trip
- “One For the Grandparents”: the Pacific Barrier Reef Window inside the Tropical Diver gallery has great lighting and livens up your photo with colorful fish.
- “Look Where I Am”: Off Baker Street Entrance, just near the newspaper stand, you can capture the full Georgia Aquarium façade.
- “The Perfect Silhouette”: It is no surprise Ocean Voyager provides an artistic backdrop for a photo; many movies have chosen this gallery to feature in their films.
- “Just Another Fish in the Sea”: Many of the exhibits feature windows where children can get up close and almost look as if they are inside with some of their favorite animals. Try making a scary face inside our Piranha exhibit in River Scout!
- “Bird’s Eye View”: Make a pit stop after you exit Cold Water Quest, to capture the World’s Most Magical Aquarium from a second floor vantage point.
- Make the most of family time.
- Break out the map – make the most of your visit by researching which “must-see” locations are close. Planning ahead will help minimize parking fees and reduce travel time.
- Conveniently located in downtown Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium is the perfect starting point for a day filled with family fun. There are 6 hotels, 5 (soon to be 7!) attractions and 17 restaurants all within a 12-minute walk from the front door of Georgia Aquarium.