Nestled right in the Heart of the City of Atlanta sits the Jewel of the USA’s Aquarium line-up, The Georgia Aquarium. The Largest and most spectacular of America’s aquariums it hosts some incredible exhibits and some of the most beautiful animals in the ocean. The fact it’s the biggest of all Aquariums is beyond doubt, but is it the best?
There is some stiff competition in the US as most cities have their own attractions and some of the world’s finest Aquaria are found in the States! The Monterey Bay Aquarium is world class as is the Shedd in Chicago, both featuring simply stunning exhibits, So just because the Georgia Aquarium is the biggest with all its bells and whistles, does not automatically make it the best! We take a trip to the Aquarium to see how it measures up in our Georgia Aquarium Review to find out.
The Georgia Aquarium Review
- Attraction: Georgia Aquarium
- Location: Pemberton Place, Atlanta, Georgia
- Cost: General Admission: $39.95 – Walk-Up $44.95
- Upgrade: from $34-$38
- Aquarium Size: 11+ Million Gallons
The Georgia Aquarium Info and Stats
The Aquarium is the Biggest aquarium in the United State, and by a long shot. The Largest Tank the Ocean Explorer Tank is actually larger than the combined gallons of its nearest rival!
- Largest Tank: 6.3 million US Gallons!
- Total Gallons: 11+ Million Gallons
- Species: 200+
- Number of Animals: 100,000+
There are 7 main zones that cover most elements of aquatic life (and a few terrestrial as well), These range from the Open Ocean to Coral Reefs, Mangrove Swamps, Freshwater Rivers, and the Frigid Arctic.
The Scope really is like no other Aquarium we have visited and there are so many varied, beautiful land and interesting exhibits as you explore. On top of the Exhibits are several Shows and Presentations, a 4-d Teater, and the chance to get up close and personal with the Animal Encounters (for an extra charge). There are several opportunities to get wet and swim or dive with the animals (Extra Fee) and even behind-the-scenes tours and experiences.
It’s a huge and fascinating place and you can spend 2 hours or two days here and still have a fantastic time.
Exhibits and Animals
One of the best ways to know what to expect is to run through the different exhibits and see what s on offer at the Aquarium, we go in clockwise order from the entrance, but save the best till last!
Sharks! Predators Of The Deep
- Sand Tiger Sharks
- Great Hammerhead Sharks
- Tiger Sharks
- Silver Tip Reef Sharks
The First attraction you will come to is the Sharks Predators Of The Deep display. This is a NEW attraction and was part of the 2020 expansion. Obviously, this focuses on Sharks and is a pretty bland exhibit showcasing the natural habitat of the Sharks on display, open ocean, and sandy with some dotted rocks.
The Sand Tiger sharks are a firm favorite, with their gnarly teeth and large size they look really fearsome but are actually completely harmless. Silver Tips are really beautiful sharks and are the childhood image we all have of a REAL shark. There are large shoals of Pilchards too which we are informed are Friends not food!
The Hammerheads are really impressive and glide around the tank showing off their unique biology and really wowing everyone. Cruising around the surface is the incredible Tiger Shark. This is not a great display tank for the Tiger as he prowls mainly on the surface quite a way from the viewing windows but the stripped body is really distinctive and we have never seen such a shark on exhibit before.
There are several different viewing windows around the tank but the best one is straight away as you enter the exhibit. There are a couple of under-tank windows but they are not as impressive as a tunnel.
An option to go cage diving is an intriguing experience. and there is also a Shark interaction experience where you get to touch Zebra Sharks and Large Rays in a shallow tank.
Pier 225 / Sea Lion Theater
- Sea Lions
There is not too much to see at Pier 225 as it is mainly just a basic gallery for the Sea Lion Theater. Here you can catch a glimpse of the Sea Lions but to properly appreciate them you need to see the presentation.
Here a trainer will show you how they interact and entertain the Aquarium rescued Sea lions. It’s a really fun display but it’s not on par with a Sea-World show, but a lot of more intermate and engaging. These Shows need to be booked and it’s best to do this as soon as you arrive either via the App or via the digital Kiosks. This is included with your entry ticket though, which is good news.
- Electric Eels
- Longnose Garfish
- Asian Otters
- Archer Fish
- Elephant Nose Fish
- Fire Eels
The River Scout Exhibit takes a look at the Freshwater world and is packed with some really interesting Animals. There is a large tank as you enter showcasing Longnose Garfish, Sturgeon, and various fish from the USA’s freshwater. There is an impressive shoal of Red Bellied Phirana with their fearsome teeth.
The Asian Otters are super cute and play and forage in their habitat. There are quite a few ecosystems represented here from the Amazon, the Great Lakes, and US Waterways, The African Lakes, and Asia. It’s a really varied and interesting exhibit. We would have preferred some more Amazonian Fish though with some really important and impressive species, not on show.
Aquanaut Adventure/Gator Crossing
- American Alligator
The Lines between these Exhibits and the River Scout are pretty blurred. The Gater Tank sits above the River Scout and you can see the Gater from below and the River Scout exhibits from above, making it all one and the same really.
The gators are pretty small, at least currently, and kind of float around in free space. There is a Rope Walkway but this crosses the pathway below and we feel they missed a trick not having this above the Gators.
The Aquanaut Adventure goes off on a bit of random adventure, with some pretty random animals on display such as various lizards, Stick Insects, Frogs, and Snakes. Not very Aquatic but still interesting.
One really interesting addition, although pretty out of place was the Flashlight Fish. I saw these while night diving n the Great Barrier Reef, and it was cool to see them here!
- Bottlenose Dolphins
This was the most disappointing Exhibit. There is just tone small tank and the Occupants did not look particularly engaged or active, they looked pretty unhappy, to be honest, and we never like seeing this.
Like Pier 225 this is simply the side tank and the main attraction here is the Dophin Presentation. But after seeing this exhibit we didn’t want to stay for the show.
Cold Water Quest
- Beluga Whales
- Harbour Seals
- Giant Sea Otters
- Spider Crabs
- Giant Pacific Octopus
Cold Water Quest was a real highlight for us. Starting off with the incredible Kelp Forest Display, with Garibaldi Fish, Sheep Heads, Rockfish, and other Pacific Coldwater Species, It’s not quite Montereys Kelp Forest but it’s pretty nice.
The Deepwater tank filled with Anenomes, Ratfish, and Spidercrabs is awesome and then the Giant Pacific Octopus really puts on display. On top of this, there are the Penguins which are always fun, and the super cute and friendly Giant Sea otters, who case toys and fish and play all day.
Of course, the main event is the Beluga Whale and Harbour seal Exhibits. They live together in a Ginat cold-water tank and are mightily impressive. There is plenty of space in the really deep tanks the Whales and Seals seem to play constantly and interact with each other nicely.
We always question the wisdom and morality of keeping whales in captivity and we address this below.
- Nemo – Clown Fish
- Dory – Regal Tang
- Bubbles – Yellow Tang
- Moray Eel
- Lion Fish
- Butterfly Fish
- Unicorn Fish
The Tropical Diver Exhibit takes you on a journey into the shallow warm seas that scuba Divers regularly explore. As an Avid diver, this is always of particular interest to me.
The main tank is a Stunning Ocean Reef Tank and the perfect place to find Nemo and Dory along with an impressive amount of live Coral and a host of other Tropical Marine Species. One thing that struck us was the similarities to this and Hobbyist Marine Aquariums like we used to own at home. This was very similar just absolutely super-sized to the MAX! It really is one of the best reef tanks we have ever seen.
There was a really impressive Moray Eel tank, the Eels seemed particularly unfused by the spectators and slithered around their tank, mouths a gap in stunning fashion. Alongside them about the only fish they wouldn’t eat, Lion Fish.
There were some really fun crawl-through tanks that got you face-to-face with huge Morays, and some really pretty Jellyfish tanks, the gentle pulsating and flor were really relaxing.
The 4-D theater is included in all tickets and offers visitors a fun journey through the oceans showcasing different seasonal animals and their habitats. The various films feature Octopus, Penguins, or seasonal films such as Rudolph and The Polar Express.
The Theater is really high-tech with wind bubbles and water effects to really take the films into highly immersive experiences.
We take a short Pause here to say that up until now this has been one of the best aquariums we have visited. It might not be number one, but it’s fighting it out for the top three. The final Exhibit just ends any argument. It is so incredibly powerful, moving, and utterly beautiful that it just silences all decent. Is the Georgia Aquarium the best Aquarium in the USA? After visiting the Ocean Voyager Tank, the only answer possible is YES!
- Whale Sharks
- Manta Rays
- Black Tip Reef Sharks
- Crevalle Jacks
- Golden Trevally
- Eagle Rays
- Sandbar Sharks
- Sting Rays
- Long Fin Batfish
- French Angel Fish
- Goliath Grouper
- Green Sea Turtle
- Plus over 50 Other Species
If you set aside for a moment the two biggies, Whale Sharks and Manta Rays, then that is one hell of a lineup. And the sheer quantity of life in the tank is staggering. It’s just fish everywhere. The large Reef sharks, Eagle Rays, and Sandbar Sharks glide past and almost look small in the vast expanse of water.
You enter the Exhibit through one of the world’s largest Glass Tunnels, over 100ft long, and you start to grasp the enormity of the tank. Here large stingrays glide over the tunnel as thousands of fish swim by and you might get your first glimpse of one of the Tanks Behemoths.
There are then several port holes and viewing windows as you traverse the back side of the tanks, these offer some interesting and unique views of the tank.
Finally, as you come around towards the end of the exhibit you enter the Ocean Theater, and we promise your Jaw will hit the floor. This is the most stunning and striking window into the ocean world we have seen. 23 feet tall, 61 feet wide, and two feet thick. The window covers pretty much the entire width of the tank, meaning this is a window straight into the colossal Ocean World contained within.
It is simply stunning and completely mesmerizing as the schools of JAck stream by punctuated by the Reef Sharks and various rays. Lower levels are filled with Batfish and Angelfish as per the natural hierarchy of species. On the bottom, Goliath Grouper and Stingrays cruise the sandy bottoms. Large Tarpon, go almost noticed at most depths seeming oblivious to the schooling nature of the other fish.
Then from the depth of the Blue Gloom, you spot a large shadow, as one of the Hulking great Whale Sharks looms into view. As they glide closer the stunning spots and stripes marking become clear and as they pass in front of the window their sheer size is all too obvious. This is probably the most stunning sight we have ever witnessed in an enclosed environment!
There are two Whales currently at the Aquarium, The Larger Male, “Yushan” and the smaller “Taroko”. At 47 feet long (Yushan) and 24 feet long (Taroko), weighing over 8,000+ Lbs, these huge animals are not even as large as they can get and have a bit of growing still to do!
On top of the Whale Sharks and almost more exciting for us, where the Manta Rays. These incredible creatures have been an obsession of mine since childhood and I have failed on numerous occasions to swim or dive with them in the wild so just actually seeing a manta ray was so exciting, even though it’s far from scratched that particular Itch.
This colossal tank was the main focus of the Aquarium when it opened in 2007 and the whole center was built around the Exhibit and its intention to keep Whale Sharks. The Aquarium initially kept 6 Sharks but two passed early on and another two passed recently. There is no obvious ethical source to replace these Magnificanet creatures so what the Aquarium will do when Yushan and Takora pass is a little unknown. The Exhibit will still be magnificent, but nothing can top the beauty of these Sharks!
Added Attractions and Experiences
There are various animal encounters available, these all bring you face to face with your chosen creature and allow direct interaction.
- Beluga: $79.95
- Dolphin: $69.95
- Harbour Seal: $65.95
- Penguin: $65.95
- Sea Lion: $69.95
- Shark And Ray: $99.95
So if you have always dreamed of getting real close and personal with Dolphins, Penguins, or petting a shark these could be the perfect solution. The Programs are very much geared toward enhancing your understanding of these amazing animals and how the Aquarium looks after their animals.
Dives and Swims
The Aquarium also offers you the chance to Dive or Swim with the Whale Sharks in the Ocean Explorer Tank. Honesty as an avid Diver, I would still choose the Snorkel Option, The Gentle Giants are very much surface dwellers and there is little point in Scuba Diving along the bottom of the tank with them sailing overhead. Instead, you are much better staying on the surface in their domain. Both experiences are hugely expensive…
- Journey with Gentle Giants – Swim: $249.95
- Journey with Gentle Giants – Dive: $349.95
The Final Dive experience is the Cage Dive in the Shark Tank. Honestly, this does not excite us at all. We are not fans of cage diving and happily dive and swim with sharks on a fairly regular basis. These sharks are not even interested in hunting the tank’s pilchards as they are frequently target fed, they would have zero interest in any divers in the tank so there is just no need for the cage at all. If you really want to experience sharks this is not the best way to do it, it’s a bit like just looking through the Aquarium window…only wetter, and much more expensive.
- Shark Cage Dive: $249.95
All these tours come with a large helping of education and learning to help you understand a appreciate the incredible animals you will be diving with.
Behind the Seas Tour
Behind The Seas Tour: $15
I mentioned further up that We used to keep Marine Fish in our own Aquarium at Home. As such I have a real interest in the Aquarium Hobby and understand the mechanics of keeping a Saltwater Habitat alive, so I was really interested in getting behind the Scenes and seeing how the Aquarium operates.
For me, this was fascinating as the whole place really operates the same as a Home Aquarium only much much larger. The Filters the Lighting, The Aeration, and Clean-Up crews were all so similar but turbo-charged. It was really fascinating.
Kae has much less of an interest in the technical side but still loved getting to see the other side of the windows.
The Tour offers behind-The-Scenes access to three areas. The Beluga was a little underwhelming, you do not get to enter the Beluga Area, but instead, have access to a quarantine area with a window in the whales. Honestly, I found the Creatures on display in here more interesting than the Whales.
Next up is the Tropical Reef Tank. This was the most interesting for me as you really got to see the inner working of the Reef system. You could see the lighting, Filters, and Off display areas that enhanced the water quality with Mangrove trees. You also got to see the Wave tank empty in the Tank to help with the Aeration of the water. It was really exciting, in a geeky kind of way.
The Ocean Explorer Tank is pretty cool on entry, you are right beside the largest Aquarium Tank in the USA and the water is literally boiling with fish activity. You can see clearly into the water and watch the fish circle. But then, one of the Whales looms into view and your Jaw hits the floor. Nothing really prepared me for this. It was simply magical!
So is the Georgia Aquarium the Best Aquarium in the USA?
The answer really is a resounding yes. The scope of the Ocean Explorer tank just surpasses anything else in the country by such a long way. We adore the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Its oceanside setting and wonderful curation make this a fabulous place to visit and in some ways, it surpasses the Georgia Aquarium which has a colder, more modern feel.
But you just can’t get past the ocean Explorer tank, it is just breathtaking in every day and is something everyone with an interest in sea life and Marine Aaurums should experience. Is it worth heading to Atlanta just for this, well we did, and certainly do not regret it!
Is it the best Aquarium in the world?
Honestly, we cannot answer this. It is the best we have ever visited but there are some huge and really stunning aquariums in China, Japan, and Dubai, we have not visited these so cannot really compare. But it is honestly right up there and still holds the title of the Third largest Aquarium in the world, and is still expanding so could always recapture its crown as it’s only a couple of million U.S Gallons behind the Chimelong Ocean Kingdom (China) and Marine Life Park (Singapore)
Other Atlanta Attractions
Atlanta is a great City and there is a lot to see and do. It really helps most of the attractions are so conveniently located. Right Across Pemberton Place, in front of the Aquarium is the World Of Coca-Cola, then next door is the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, all within 100meters f each other.
Then there is the College Football Hall of Fame just across the Centennial Park, along with the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park not too far away. The Atlanta Zoo just a short drive away into the Suburbs, and the Natural History Museum is a really spectacular exhibit out in the Atlanta woodlands.
Read More about these attractions here
If you are looking to Save money on visiting several of Atlanta’s great attractions then you might consider the Atlanta CityPASS this can save you over 40% on entry fees and with so many of Atlanta’s attractions so close it is a bit of a no-brainer.
The Georgia Aquarium Ethics
We have some issues with the morality of some of the animals kept at the Georgia Aquarium. And overall it does make us uneasy supporting such an attraction. We never doubt the commitment and compassion of the workers, vets, and trainers that look after these animals on a daily basis they clearly have a lot of love for the animals.
However, keeping large or intelligent animals in Captivity can be seen as questionable. However, on the whole, the Aquarium does seem to do the right things in terms of continued conservation efforts,
Whale Sharks – These are possibly one of the most beautiful creatures mother nature has ever delivered. They are just stunning. And while they are not overly clever, and probably do not suffer too much from captivity, we are still pretty torn over whether it is ok or not. We would rather see them cruising the oceans obviously and there are some issues with premature deaths. These are the last 2 of 6 animals brought in 2006/7.
These sharks were actually taken from the Commercial Fishing Quota in Tawain, Meaning if they had not been taken into captivity, they would have been killed and eaten! So in that respect, it’s a good thing really.
Interestingly, this fishery has been abolished and there are NO active fisheries taking Whale Sharks for food (Legally) so it will be interesting to see what happens when Taroko and Yushan finally pass. Will the Aquarium replace them and if so will this be from Wild Stocks? The free pass we give them for keeping rescue Whales may expire if they take from the wild!
Beluga Whales – This one is more clear-cut, and also more complicated. We know Beluga Whales do not belong in Captivity. They should be free soaring under the Ice-Caps. This is a cruel practice and one we should be ashamed of. But, it’s historic. These animals are in captivity and have been all their lives. They cannot survive in the ocean and releasing them is a DEATH SENTENCE. We know this from the tragic story of Keiko, the Killer Whale who played Free Willy.
He was released into the wild and was unable to feed, unable to be accepted into a POD, and ultimately died alone in Fjord begging for Human interaction!
We have personally traveled to Iceland to see the efforts of the Sea-Life team there as they try and re-habilitate two Beluga back into the wild. They are taking it real slow and have constructed a huge Sea-Pen and are slowly working the Whales into it, hoping for an eventual release. But it’s a fairly forlorn hope and the reality is they will probably live out their days in the pen. This is definitely better than small tanks on display, but it’s not certain even this will be successful.
It’s a tough predicament we have got ourselves in, and not one with an Easy answer. But the negative side of this is Beluga are still being bread, and we have little hope of passing out Marine Mammals in activity while organizations are breeding them!
Have Your Say
Have you visited The Georgia aquarium? What were your thoughts on the attraction? What were your favorite Exhibits…apart from the Whale Sharks? Did you do any additional activities? How did you find the overall welfare? Whatever your thoughts just free away in the comments below, and if you have any questions again just leave a comment.