The one thing everyone says you need to do when visiting Atlanta is go to the Georgia Aquarium. When it first opened in 2005, it was the biggest aquarium in the world. Years later, it is the third largest in the world, and the largest in the United States. It contains 11 million gallons of water and is known as the largest aquarium in the western hemisphere. Over 18 million people have visited the Georgia Aquarium. When I visited last week, I thought the whole place was cool and I learned a lot, but it also made me sad.
Georgia Aquarium is the only aquarium in North America home to whale sharks, the biggest fish in the ocean. These creatures can grow to be approximately 40 feet long—a huge animal to keep in captivity. Only five aquariums in the world have one of these animals. To make things worse, I listened as the speaker described how the whale sharks came to be at the aquarium. In total, the aquarium is intended to hold four whale sharks: Ralph, Norton, Alice, and Trixie. Two of the whale sharks, Ralph and Norton, passed away in 2007, two years after the aquarium’s opening. Many have speculated that they died because of the lack of knowledge surrounding keeping these enormous animals in captivity. The other two whale sharks of the initial four also died years later. The aquarium is still home to four newer whale sharks.
These sharks live in a tank with 6.3 million gallons of water, which sounds like a lot, but it’s actually relatively shallow for such a large fish. Additionally, the way they transport these animals is inhumane. They are shipped via UPS from Taiwan in a special box made just for them. They showed the size of the box in the exhibit, and it was quite small. It looked like a tight fit in comparison to the whale shark. These tanks were designed to travel the whale sharks 8,000 miles by plane to Georgia.
Georgia Aquarium has not escaped the criticism all aquariums face about animal captivity. For all aquariums, there is not enough room for these animals to live a healthy and happy life. Wild cetaceans travel 40 to 100 miles a day. Therefore, even in one of the world’s largest aquariums, like Georgia, they are reduced to one millionth of their natural habitat. The life expectancy of many species of marine animals is much lower when kept in captivity compared to those that live in the wild. Keeping animals in these facilities leads to a significant increase in both physical and psychological suffering and creates stress. Additionally, only 5–10 percent of zoos, dolphinaria, and aquaria are involved in substantial conservation programs. Many report that they are going to great lengths to save our planet and the species that reside here. However, most of this is false information meant to gain public favor. When looking at the data, there are relatively few facilities actually putting in any real effort to make a difference in the world.
It’s clear that aquariums and zoos aren’t going away anytime soon. These creatures are being put on display in the so-called “name of education.” Going to visit these animals once a year may seem like a fun trip, but we must ask ourselves, at what cost? We are significantly reducing the quality of life for these animals. Is it really worth it?