- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 12, 2005

ATLANTA (AP) — The whale sharks are the kings of the multi-million-gallon tank, their presence palpable even before they emerge from the murky darkness like massive star cruisers in a science-fiction film.

Once visitors to the new Georgia Aquarium have seen Ralph and Norton — the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia — they’ll still have at least 99,998 more fish to go.

When the 500,000-square-foot aquarium, bankrolled almost exclusively by a $200 million gift from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, opens Nov. 23, it will officially become the world’s largest by virtually any standard.

“It’s going to be the most unique aquarium in the world,” said the 76-year-old Mr. Marcus.

Shaped like an abstract cruise ship looming over Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, the aquarium is expected to attract as many as 2 million visitors in its first year and be the anchor for a downtown tourism revival.

Across the street from CNN Center and the Georgia Dome, the aquarium will be joined in 2007 by a new World of Coca-Cola museum next door. And the city also is a finalist for NASCAR’s hall of fame that would be located nearby.

The unusual fish on display, presentations that will include computer-generated images, spotlights and music, and the sheer size of the project have aquarium officials around the world buzzing.

“We’re very much looking forward to it and we’re expecting big things,” said Kristin Vehrs, interim executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. “We know they are going to be doing state-of-the-art things at that aquarium.”

Holding 8 million gallons of water and home to more than 100,000 fish, the Georgia Aquarium already dwarfs what had for decades been the nation’s largest indoor aquarium, the 5-million-gallon, 20,000-fish Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

In addition to the pair of juvenile whale sharks, which could grow to more than 40 feet, there will be five beluga whales, two of them rescued from an amusement park in Mexico.

The aquarium also will include a wide array of saltwater and freshwater fish, including some from Georgia’s waters. It will have a separate “education loop,” with its own faculty and a curriculum crafted with state education officials.

There’s a movie theater, which shows movies with 3-D animation and other special effects, and a banquet hall that can serve a sit-down dinner for 1,100 persons.

“Very early on, we even contemplated not calling it an aquarium,” said director Jeff Swanagan, who has worked with Mr. Marcus the past four years after leaving the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. “We really spent some time trying to think maybe there’s a different word for what we are.”

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