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Georgia Aquarium faces challenges to its image as it marks 10 years

When it opened its doors in late 2005, the Georgia Aquarium was lauded as a turbo-charged engine of downtown Atlanta’s redevelopment; a tourist magnet that also positioned itself as a staunch advocate of marine conservation.

Now, 10 years later, the popular attraction is navigating choppy waters that could damage its image.

The aquarium — which has had two newborn beluga whale calves die on its watch — is locked in a bitter legal fight with the federal government as well as a roster of well-known animal welfare advocates, environmentalists and celebrities over its efforts to import 18 of the wild-caught whales from Russia.

It’s not the only negative attention the aquarium has garnered of late. Earlier this year, a troubling tape surfaced showing a dolphin trainer who was set to become a senior vice president at the Atlanta attraction allegedly hitting and kicking the animals at a theme park in Spain. Soon afterward, he was found dead in his car, an apparent suicide.

The stakes are high for a nonprofit organization that relies on public donations and and consistently draws a stream of more than 2 million visitors a year. That’s especially true in an age when activists can leverage the muscle of social media and the endless reach of the Internet to mobilize a movement. Just ask SeaWorld, which has been reeling after the film “Blackfish” alleged cruel treatment of killer whales in captivity.

A diminished Georgia aquarium would not only undercut the preservation work they’ve established — and rewrite what has largely been a success story in Atlanta — but it would also threaten a centerpiece of downtown tourism.

“The aquarium’s image is suffering and it should,” said Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, which is among the groups opposing the beluga import.

“It is presenting itself as this conservation organization and at the same time its giving you a Vegas-style dolphin show.”

“This is about hypocrisy. The emperor is buck naked.”

Aquarium officials reject the notion that its reputation is at risk, pointing to steady ticket sales and positive ratings on travel sites, such as

They argue they want to bring the belugas to the United States for display as part of comprehensive conservation effort designed to help the species, listed as threatened. Studying animals in a controlled human-monitored environment can provide valuable insight into their welfare in the wild, they say.

“The experience of going to an aquarium can be both emotional and educational and that experience can impact behavior toward wildlife in lasting ways,” the aquarium’s chief veterinary officer Dr. Gregory Bossart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The Blackfish Effect

Marine theme parks have been under heightened public scrutiny ever since the 2013 debut of the documentary “Blackfish,” which told the story of a SeaWorld trainer killed by an Orca. Since its release, SeaWorld has seen its attendance and revenue plummet. They have launched an aggressive public relations counter offensive.

Several of the 18 belugas the aquarium seeks to import would end up at SeaWorld parks, according to federal regulators.

“It’s interesting that everything is happening through the Georgia Aquarium name when there is a clear SeaWorld connection,” said Anna Frostic, a lawyer with the Humane Society of the United States, which also weighed in with a legal brief arguing against the aquarium.

The name matters. Aquariums generally occupy a different place than theme parks. Aquariums are seen more as educational venues where viewers can observe animals in something resembling their natural state. But those lines — between aquarium and theme park — sometimes blur.

The aquarium invested $110 million in an expansion to display Atlantic bottlenose dolphins in 2o11. While some patrons love the dolphin show that resulted, others compare the glitzy spectacle — complete with lights, booming music and performing dolphins — as pure showbiz and incompatible with a mission to conserve, protect and educate.

Scott Higley, the aquarium’s vice president for external affairs, calls it “edutainment,” and said it’s designed to appeal to kids and others who might need a little more interaction to capture their attention.

“We are trying to reach as many people as possible and to do that we have embraced non-traditional forms of education,” he said.

So far, the strategy seems to be working. Following an initial spike in numbers when it opened, the aquarium’s attendance has held roughly steady at 2 million or more visitors a year. Revenue from ticket sales has continued to grow steadily — from $52 million in 2011 to nearly $60 million in 2013, according to documents it filed with the Internal Revenue Service. (Admission costs have also risen)

And a hot new attraction is on the horizon to keep visitors coming back. Sea lions arrived in Atlanta last week and are set to rejoin the line up next year.

That’s good news for Atlanta, where the aquarium remains among the top draws for tourists. William Pate, head of the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, said it is hard to overstate the effect the aquarium had on downtown Atlanta’s rebirth.

“It was the catalyst,” Pate said. Centennial Olympic Park is now surrounded by the World of Coca-Cola, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Skyview Ferris Wheel. They came, in part, because the aquarium paved the way, allowing them to tap a stream of tourists already in the neighborhood, he said.

The Four R’s

Georgia Aquarium benefactor Bernie Marcus made clear when the the massive facility opened that the “4R” program — rescue, rehabilitation, relocation and research — was just as important to him as its rank as a major entertainment venue.

“I am concerned about the air we breathe and the water we drink, ” the Home Depot co-founder said at the time. “If overfishing continues, if pollution continues, many of these species will disappear off the face of the earth.”

It was that image that spurred Libby Rome to pay a visit last year. The Los Angeles resident was on a month-long work trip to the area, staying in Marietta. An animal lover, she figured she would give the aquarium try.

“I was extremely disgusted, especially by the dolphin show,” Rome said. “I couldn’t believe they were putting leashes on them and driving them around.”

“This was not about conservation or animal well being and health. This was about money.”

For any zoo or aquarium there are two distinct and mostly unmovable camps: the die-hard supporters and those that oppose animal captivity in any form. Those like Rome represent a crucial middle ground.

So does someone like Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer and former National Geographic Explorer in Residence. She praised Marcus for his decision to spend hundreds of millions of his home-improvement fortune on an aquarium to display whale sharks, at the time a controversial move as well. Now, Earle is among those who have added their names to a legal brief opposing the aquarium’s beluga lawsuit.

Earle could not be reached for comment.

But in a sign of the regard in which the aquarium holds Earle, a quote from her graces the wall of the venue’s Ocean Voyage exhibit.

“The oceans deserve our respect and care, but you have to know something before you can care about it,” it reads.

Higley said aquarium officials never spoke to Earle about her decision to join the fight against them and would have liked the opportunity to educate her about the initiative.

“Sometimes educated people and passionate people can disagree,” he said.

Right now the 18 beluga whales at issue swim in tanks along at a Russian research station along the Black Sea, They were collected between 2006 and 2011 in the Sea of Okhotsk off the northeast Russian coast. A federal judge could rule on the case in the coming weeks. The aquarium’s application to federal officials was the first seeking to import wild-caught marine mammals in more than two decades and could set a precedent under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Still, many outside of the scientific and conservation community seem unaware of the hubbub. On a recent weekday morning, Karen Levin and her four-year-old son Jack, watched the aquarium’s three beluga whales turn graceful somersaults in the aquarium’s two-story tank.

“I had no idea,” Levin, of Decatur, said when told about the legal fight that could determine the belugas future. “From everything I’ve seen they do a really good job with the animals here. Everything is big and clean and the people here really seem to care.”

She mulled whether the controversies would change her opinion of the aquarium until a cry brought her back to more immediate concerns.

“Look mom! Penguins!” her son said, tiring of the belugas and tearing off toward the neighboring exhibit. She followed.

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