How the Georgia Aquarium Works

Acquiring the Animals
Aquarium staff lower a beluga whale into its transport container. Click here to see the whales swimming in their new home.
Aquarium staff lower a beluga whale into its transport container. Click here to see the whales swimming in their new home.
Photo courtesy UPS

Like all zoos and aquariums, the Georgia Aquarium has received criticism from animal rights groups and others who believe that the animals living there would be better off in the wild. But about 70 percent of the aquarium's animals came from fish farms, zoos and other aquariums. In several cases, aquarium staff rescued animals that were living in unhealthy circumstances or that would have died without their intervention.

With the help of United Parcel Service (UPS), the aquarium staff moved more than 100,000 fish from aquaculture farms in Taiwan to a quarantine warehouse in a period of 36 hours. These fish flew in 42 specially designed tanks, and many of them were very small when they arrived.

Some of the aquarium's largest species also arrived via UPS. For example, Ralph and Norton, the aquarium's original whale sharks, and beluga whales Nico and Gasper made their journeys in specially designed tanks with life support systems. Ralph and Norton flew 8,000 miles from Taipei, Taiwan with a layover in Anchorage, Alaska on a specially equipped B-747 freighter jet. Nico and Gasper flew 1,331 miles from Mexico City, Mexico on a 767 cargo jet. Aquarium staff accompanied the animals on their journeys and moved them into and out of their containers using special slings. Flatbed trucks carried the enclosures from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to the Aquarium.

Aquarium specialists secure a whale shark in its transport container off the coast of Taiwan. Whale sharks are the largest known fish in the world, but these are still juveniles.
Photo courtesy UPS

With animals and water inside, the whale shark tank weighed 54,000 pounds, and the whale tank weighed 26,000 pounds. Because of all this weight, the airplanes required modifications to handle the load. UPS workers had to place the tanks precisely according to the planes' center of gravity. The weight also affected takeoff and landing speeds.

A specialized sling removes a whale shark from its transport container. Left in the wild, the sharks would likely have been caught for food.
Photo courtesy UPS

In addition to the whales, whale sharks and animals from aquaculture facilities, other live animals brought to the aquarium include:

  • A school of tarpon, silver fish that can weigh more than 300 pounds when fully grown, rescued from a tide pool
  • An unnamed species of fish, which is about 4 inches long and is orange with a pink tail, collected off the coast of Fiji
  • Several species of tropical fish rescued after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated them as an illegal shipment
  • A bowmouth guitarfish caught by accident by Taiwanese fishermen
  • Oz and Gracie, sea otters from the Oregon Zoo and California's Aquarium of the Pacific
  • Local species, like cownose rays, collected from the Georgia coast
  • Coral, grown for use in the aquarium rather than harvested from existing reefs

We'll look at where and how the staff prepares meals for these animals next.