Honestly, though, I loved the fish...

The new Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta is billed as the world's largest. It is spectacular, a place you absolutely must visit if you pass through. The tanks are so massive that one seems to be walking through a tunnel burrowed through distant oceans. It is also a Godawful, horrid representation of everything wrong with our consumerist, market-driven culture, an opportunity to stand in a long line like mutton at the abattoir, waiting to spend $27 to be assaulted by the sights and sounds of the food court at your local mall.

The customer, relieved of their entrance fee, enters a vast hall teeming with schools of people, like fish. The ambiance is one of shopping mall. Immediately across from the entrance is the café and snack shoppe, so situated that the public will waste no time yielding up more of their cash. Prominent dioramas proclaim the corporate sponsors of the different exhibits. Home Depot, or its materials, built a part of an exhibit, for instance. UPS flew in the whales for free, and they aren't shy about telling you. Enormous, flashy, three dimensional graphics dangle in the grand hall, as if no contemporary child could possibly enjoy an experience that does not present itself with the aesthetics of a Disney DVD.

Worse, the educational component of this incredible institution seemed limited to a few of the usual platitudes about not wasting water and helping to keep the oceans clean, posted here and there in unlit corners of the walkways on bits of colored cardboard. Any educational awareness I might have taken away from the experience was certainly overshadowed, in terms of prominent graphics, by the announcement that the freshwater meander was sponsored by the Southern Company, a vast hydroelectric and nuclear power concern. Call me a curmudgeon, but this is blood money. To propose to me that I might save the world by remembering to turn off the water as I brush my teeth, while simultaneously providing a greenwashing for a massive power company is, pardon the pun, a damming indictment of the whole affair. It leaves a muddy, brackish taste in the mouth. I know, I know, why not just accept that this is entertainment, not an educational opportunity?

Apologists will tell us that without the corporate sponsorship by companies trying to link this simulated wilderness experience to their brand it would be impossible to build such spectacular exhibits. I'm unwilling to accept that trade, even if the vastest of the tanks seems to be an almost ocean-sized affair, crammed with multiple species of sharks, dense schools of fish of a multitude of species, and, most impressively, no end in sight. The giant nurse sharks look small in it, and they have enough room in the adept underwater architecture to swim away and out of view. We have no sense that these fish have boundaries, that somewhere deep beyond them is another wall. The public ride through an undersea tunnel on a slow-moving conveyor-belt.

Only the Beluga whales seem confined, circling in repeated patterns, like inmates doing pushups in their cells. A whale in a tank, however spacious, is like a goldfish in a shotglass.

Only in the most pristine conditions could one hope to have comparable views in the wild.

For an additional fee customers can arrange to go diving with the nurse sharks.

At the aquarium shop you can buy this creepy, burkaesque dolphin mask, along with thousands of delightful dolphins, simpering sharks, baby belugas and other stuffed, fluffy variants on the cuddly, but we could not find one inch of shelf in this vast store, in the world's largest aquarium, given over to even one serious book about fish, oceans, or ecosystems


L. Harmon said...

Giant grouper!

Triss Teh said...

Beluga: stupid humans, we try to communicate to you but all you do is ooh and aah and and utilize the photovoltaic effect in the effort to supplement your memories.

Unknown said...

I live in Atlanta and have never darkened the doorsteps of the Ga Aquarium because of the politics of this huge trophy to Bernie (Home depot). I always encourage volunteerism to stretch your own boundaries and help someone do the same. To volunteer here, you must pay $60 to have a background check done (one that costs them $25) and you must prove that you have medical insurance. For me, this sounds like a good way to be class-ist about who works at the lovely fish prison. Thanks for giving me even more reasons to stay away. Of course, I am usually alone in my boycott. Oh well...