This is a whale of a tale – for real.
Our visit to the world's largest aquarium was the experience of a lifetime.
We got up close and personal with whale sharks, manta rays, beluga whales, dolphins, penguins, sea otters and just about all the fish in the sea.
The big splash took place just two states away at the Georgia Aquarium, where all hands on deck means 450 employees and 1,500 volunteers overseeing 100,000 animals in 10 million gallons of marine and fresh water.
This display of the world's aquatic biodiversity is located on 9 acres adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta's downtown entertainment zone. We stayed in the comfortable Hilton Garden Inn, a stone's throw away.
Journey with gentle giants
We were right in the swim of things, scuba diving with 40-foot-long whale sharks, 250-pound manta rays, 600-pound giant groupers and thousands of other aquatic animals. The 6.3-million-gallon Ocean Voyager habitat is the only place outside of Asia to house the whale shark (largest fish in the world) and the only place around the globe where snorkeling or diving with one is guaranteed.
The world was our oyster when we explored the Georgia Aquarium once it closed its doors for the night. After behind-the-scenes tours, we joined 50 guests nestling into sleeping bags in front of the second-largest viewing window in the world. Besides the gentle giants, we were mesmerized by potato groupers, grey snappers, rainbow runners, batfish, porkfish, sand tiger sharks, blacktop sharks, sawfish and more representatives of the 500 species in the aquarium.
Beluga and friends
We suited up to wade into icy waters and interacted with smart and sociable beluga whales, who always seem to have smiles on their faces, as well as playful sea lions. Trainers, who also work on numerous research initiatives, showed us the ropes and demonstrated how they connect with the animals. Besides vocalizations, the beluga whales communicated through facial expressions and physical contact. Oohs, ahhs and wows all around.
Meet the penguins
It was smooth sailing when we came face-to-face with these feathered friends. The African penguin exhibit features 25 nesting areas integrated into naturalistic rockwork and comes equipped with a state-of-the-art lighting system that mimics the natural light cycle from twilight to moonlight.
Sea otter crush
Is it weird to fall in love with a sea otter? Whatever floats your boat, eh? They are so cute! We went behind the scenes at the critters' digs in the Cold Water Quest Gallery and learned that the aquarium provides much-needed homes for those who're orphaned or stranded.
We had backstage passes for a poolside meet-and-greet with bottlenose dolphins, who're also the stars of a Vegas-meets-Disney show. Kneeling on the pool deck, we fed the dolphins under the watchful eye of trainers, who were keen to share their appreciation of Flipper.
Go fish! Like a gallery of living art, Nemo and friends darted around colorful corals to recreate a tropical Pacific scene, complete with an overhead crashing wave. A rainbow of marine life included seahorses, fairy basslets, yellow-head jawfish and other jewels of the sea.