Georgia Aquarium’s expansion plans include new shark gallery

A new shark gallery, a redesigned main entrance and increased animal interactions will anchor the Georgia Aquarium’s upcoming overhaul.

Dubbed Expansion 2020, the project, expected to cost about $100 million, will begin in April to extend the aquarium entrance into the plaza and build an enclosed ticketing/box office area. A temporary entrance for guests will open in September.

The shark gallery is slated to open in late fall 2020 and is keyed to the aquarium’s conservation and education efforts.

“Sharks as a group of animals are underappreciated by our guests and the public in general,” said Chris Coco, senior director of fish and invertebrates at Georgia Aquarium. “We want to demonstrate how interesting they are. The elegance and diversity of sharks is pretty special to us. … We have to get past that ‘attack’ impression of sharks and instill in our guests what these guys are. They’re important to the ecosystem and keep it in balance. They are under great attack by humans for harvesting and the shark finning business, and the reality is that the sharks are truly the victims.”

RELATED: Inside Atlanta: Guide to visiting the Georgia Aquarium

The saltwater gallery — which will be named closer to opening — will feature floor-to-ceiling acrylic windows for optimal viewing of shark species that might include hammerheads, sand tiger sharks and sandbar sharks.

“I think there is a high likelihood we’ll see those iconic species. Everyone recognizes a hammerhead, right?” Coco said.

The Georgia Aquarium opened in November 2005 and retains its bragging rights as the largest aquarium in the U.S.

It already includes areas spotlighting sea lions, whale sharks, dolphins and penguins, and the new exhibit will provide animal interactions as well.

“I think in a general sense everyone likes animal interactions,” Coco said. ”I think the shark area could drive home the impact of sharks in terms of overcoming fears.”

Coco said the aquarium team is currently examining how the construction and “1 million gallons” expansion might affect the animals currently living in the aquatic venue.

“As we get closer to the construction timetable, the animal team will weigh in,” and decide what preventive measures might need to be taken, he said. Unlike past projects, such as the AT&T Dolphin Celebration in 2011, the majority of the expansion work is taking place farther south than most of the animal spaces.

Georgia Aquarium will, for the first time in its existence, seek funding for these upcoming upgrades. The nonprofit organization is currently in discussion with “partners and philanthropic” friends; a portion of ticket proceeds fund research and conservation efforts, as well as operating costs and enhancements, such as Expansion 2020.

On Monday, the Georgia Legislature passed a bill that will provide the aquarium with $4.5 million in tax breaks in the form of sales tax exemptions on construction costs. The bill now goes to Gov. Nathan Deal for his signature.


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