by Charlotte D. Cruce
My 13-year-old daughter Katherine and I recently spent the entire day checking out a new exhibit, doing a behind-the-scenes tour and having a penguin encounter at the Georgia Aquarium. We’ve visited many times before, but today was our day to dive deeper!
If you were a penguin, you couldn’t pretend you didn’t hear your mom calling! Each penguin has a distinctive call (a braying sound) that distinguishes each one’s voice from all others. We love penguins, and were fascinated to learn facts like these during our encounter experience. Our group was able to get up close and personal with some new penguin friends, and even touch them, during our time behind the scenes.
We expected them to be sleek and smooth, but we were surprised that their feathers are so soft! And did you know that penguins’ feather patterns are like people’s fingerprints? No two are like! Their feather patterns act as camouflage, or countershading, in the water. But when they molt every year, they lose the protective oil covering on their feathers and have to stay out of the water for several weeks. Their strong wings have bones, and they can’t fly with them, but instead use them like paddles for swimming. We visited with Lulu, a young female penguin who had been hatched at the Aquarium and had just molted into her adult feathers. After posing for pictures with Lulu, we were permitted to come close to her, touch her back and watch her play with her enrichment items. We were even able to hear some vocalizations from Lulu, which her handler told us would increase as she reaches breeding age. We also met a young male, Taki (all the penguins born at the Georgia Aquarium are given Swahili names in honor of their African heritage.) Taki, although younger than Lulu, was much bigger and covered in soft, downy feathers. While we interacted with him, the handlers taught us about various species of penguins (do you know how many there are? 18!), their habitat range and how they live in a large community. Thirteen of the penguin species are endangered, and we learned about threats to their existence and where colonies can be found – larger penguin breeds are in the coldest climates and smaller breeds are in warmer areas. Penguin lovers will find this interactive encounter very memorable!
Animal Encounters are offered twice daily, and pre-registration is a must. No photos or electronics of any kind are allowed, other than the photo taken for you with your new penguin friend.
We next headed over to the new exhibit, Sea Monsters Revealed: Aquatic Bodies. Much like the Bodies exhibit in Atlantic Station, this exhibit focuses on plasticine bodies of marine life, displayed on large pedestals or behind glass. From small fish, invertebrates, rays, sharks and even a whale shark, my daughter and I thought this exhibit was fantastic! More than 18 full bodies of sea creatures are on display along with over 150 individual organs or other smaller creatures, making this an exhibit you can really spend a lot of time in. We did just that! We were fascinated by what we learned reading about each of the sea creatures on the descriptive placards by each display.
Most impressive to me was the pregnant shark with her pups or the insides of a flounder, while my daughter said the specimens of the whale shark and the exploded grouper were her favorites. Guests start the exhibit on the ocean’s ‘surface’ and slowly work down to creatures found in the very depths of the ocean, until we ‘resurface’ at the end.
Friendly intern Kendall led our Sea Keeper behind-the-scenes tour group high above the Ocean Voyager tank where the whale sharks swam below, to where Beluga Whales and sea lions were being fed in an off-exhibit area, and then down below where the filtration systems and commissary crew prepares the food and the veterinary team cares for all the inhabitants. It’s one thing to see Aquarium life as a visitor, looking through the glass with hundreds of other people, but it is something else entirely to really see how people ‘man the ship’ of the Georgia Aquarium! From the tons of salt needed for the tanks, to the large elevator lifts used to put the whale sharks into their exhibit, to the areas where the veterinary team treat and even breed different fish and animals, this tour showed us what’s involved in the day-to-day operations of this amazing facility. For staff members, no job is too big or too small; our guide, explained how it takes thousands of staff and volunteers to keep the Georgia Aquarium in top shape. We enjoyed hearing from staff members about their jobs and their passion for the work they do.
Several different tours are available, check each for group sizes, prices and age requirements before booking.
225 Baker Street, Atlanta. 404-581-4000; georgiaaquarium.org/explore-the-aquarium/events-and-programs
General Admission: Adults $29.95-$34.95; ages 3-12, $23.95-$28.95; ages 2 and younger, free
Sea Monsters Revealed: Aquatic Bodies: Free with admission
Penguin Encounter: $54.95 (available for ages 7 and older). Other Animal Encounters Include Dolphin and Sea Otter: prices vary.
Sea Keepers Behind the Scenes Tour: $48