How the Georgia Aquarium Works

Animal Health
The Georgia Aquarium surgical room.
The Georgia Aquarium surgical room.

The Georgia Aquarium's veterinary services and conservation medicine facility is like a teaching hospital where doctors get hands-on experience working with patients. It's a 5,800 square foot unit with 15 people on staff, and it houses 26 treatment tanks and a fully equipped surgery. The aquarium has a partnership with the University of Georgia and will provide a veterinary intern position and two three-year pathology residencies for the training of new aquatic animal specialists. The veterinary staff also conducts research on animal health and behavior and shares their results with other zoos and aquariums.

The laboratory and health facility can run blood tests on animals, examine slides under a microscope and culture bacteria for analysis. The surgery also has a mobile, digital radiography unit that can be moved anywhere in the facility and can x-ray animals as small as penguins and as large as whales. It has an ultrasound machine, an endoscope and machines that allow mammals, reptiles and fish to be anesthetized for surgery.

Preventive medicine is relatively new to the aquarium industry, but the Georgia Aquarium is working on preventive medicine protocols for all of its larger animals, including annual exams. Some animals, like beluga whales, which are prone to ulcers or to swallowing foreign objects, will receive routine endoscopies. Some animals may receive vaccines, although preventive medicine for aquarium fish generally relies on observation and quarantines for all new animals rather than vaccines.

A mobile, digital radiography system in the Aquarium's surgery. The x-ray emitter sends a signal to the plate, which sends an image to the screen.

All of the larger animals in the aquarium learn husbandry behaviors, which make it easier for veterinary staff to conduct examinations. For example, when a trainer instructs them to, whales will present their flippers or tail flukes for examinations or blood collection. They will also blow from their blowhole onto a plate, which staff can examine under a microscope for parasites and bacteria. When held, penguins will present their feet for foot checks. This makes it easier for the staff to do their work and considerably reduces stress on the animals.

Another requirement for healthy aquatic animals is the quality of the water in their enclosure. We'll look at fish life support and water quality next.