By Jerry Chandler
Located in downtown Atlanta across from Centennial Olympic Park- just a few blocks diagonal from the Dragon Con host hotels -is the Georgia Aquarium. Officially opened to the public in 2005, it was the largest aquarium in the world until the 2012 opening of the Marine Life Park in Singapore. Beating it out for sheer size was no small feat. The Georgia Aquarium is home to several thousand species of salt water and fresh water life from around the world, and it contains over 10 million gallons of water to keep those critters alive and swimming in. Just a little over 6 million gallons of that water are used for the aquarium’s primary exhibit, allowing it to be one of only two institutions in the world to house whale sharks. You’ll see swimming alongside the whale sharks some of the largest manta rays you’re likely to ever see, as well as more fish and more varieties of fish than you can likely count in one single day’s trip to the Georgia Aquarium.
What’s sometimes still a surprise to me when at Dragon Con is talking to my fellow con goers and discovering how many of them have never been to the Georgia Aquarium. It’s even more surprising when they seem to not even know there is a Georgia Aquarium. Why? Well…
Dragon Con has been holding an official event at the Georgia Aquarium every year for a while now. But, maybe understandably, a lot of people don’t go to this annual event because it’s held on Saturday night. A lot of Dragon Con attendees want to be at the con itself on Saturday nights because there are a lot of Saturday and Sunday only guests and there are a lot of parties on Saturday. But that’s no reason to miss out on the Georgia Aquarium entirely. It’s not like the convention in that it’s only there for Labor Day weekend. You can visit the Georgia Aquarium before or after Dragon Con, and there’s a lot of things that make doing it totally worth your while.
Getting there is easy even if all you know about Atlanta is where the Dragon Con host hotels are. As I said before, it’s literally just a few blocks away from the host hotels. You may even find navigating your way from the host hotels to the Georgia Aquarium for the first time less overwhelming than navigating around the inside of the Georgia Aquarium for the first time. However large you may think it is from my earlier descriptions, you’re probably underselling the size in your mind.
What’s in store for you once you get there is enough to fill an entire day of sightseeing. The different exhibits in the aquarium cover multiple environments from around the globe, and the variety of life housed within each one can be dizzying in the scale and scope of it. You could spend hours checking out all there is to see if you keep moving with as little stopping as possible, but you’ll find the time you spend in each exhibit gets longer as you’ll want to stop and view some of what’s there for as long as possible. Fortunately for you, the Georgia Aquarium also has a cafeteria that’s fairly reasonably priced. You will probably be taking a meal break while there. Maybe not so fortunately for you, they also have a gift shop. Budget accordingly.
But what about the sights? When you first enter, there are openings in the walls where fish dart back and forth and tiny water creatures scuttle in, around, and through plant life and rock formations. Before long, you’ll find yourself in rooms larger than any two rooms in the average home where a wall and ceiling are windows allowing you to see into huge tanks filled with coral, plants, and fish.
As impressive as this may initially be, you quickly discover that these are some of the smaller exhibits. As you make your way through the aquarium, you’ll find yourself in tunnels under an ocean of life; including one of the largest creatures in the sea. From there, if you want to get off your feet for a bit, you can have a seat and watch the sea life drift by through a glass wall larger than the average modern movie theater screen.
But bigger, while likely better here for many, isn’t always better in every way. Several areas in the Georgia Aquarium allow you to get hands on with the life in the water. You can even pay to have a swim in limited areas. Yes, these areas can include spots that allow you to see some of the biggest manta rays and whale sharks in the tanks in entirely different up close and personal ways than just walking through the underwater tunnel or looking through one of the many viewing ports. But, for those of you that don’t want to (or don’t want to pay to) get wet, there are other ways where slightly smaller can be slightly- if not better -cooler.
You’ll see a huge number of smaller tanks representing clear, clean water environments all the way over to marshy and muddy swamps, and from the bitter cold to the tropical. You’ll see things as familiar as the fish in the streams or creeks you’ve fished in near your homes, and you’ll see things from the deep sea. You’ll also see the familiar in unfamiliar forms.
For us, the Georgia Aquarium has become an annual, after con tradition. It’s why we stay in Atlanta until Wednesday morning. It’s a fantastic way spend a part of Tuesday after con relaxing, decompressing, and at least recovering a little bit before hitting the road and driving back to Virginia. It’s something that might be worth the extra day or so in town for you as well. Can’t stay after Labor Day? You may find it worth coming in a day or two earlier than usual and using a trip to the Georgia Aquarium as a great way to relax and destress after the last minute con preparations and trip to Atlanta before leaping into the hectic frenzy that is the Dragon Con weekend.
Even if you don’t make it an annual event as we have, I can assure you that it’s more than worth it to take the extra time and see for yourself at least once as a part of your Dragon Con trip. And, hey, take the time to hang out and check out Centennial Olympic Park when you’re finished with the aquarium. It’s a nice park with some interesting stuff in it.