The Georgia Aquarium has an interesting program we’ve taken to calling “Sleeping With the Fishes.” It’s essentially exactly what you would interpolate from that title: a big sleepover hosted at the Aquarium. Sort of like a church lock-in except with whale sharks instead of Jesus and 50% less awkward groping.
This year they held one of these for Valentine’s Day so myself and Cosette, being our resident aqua-fanatic (she’s been swimming with the whale sharks at the Aquarium and you can find her series of Shark Week features here) decided to go for it.
And in short, we had a blast. We had tacked on to the beginning of the evening an additionally offered combo of dinner and a lecture, so we showed up at 6pm on Valentine’s Day at the Aquarium. We kept out sleeping bags and gear and such in the car and went straight to the Oceans Ballroom for the first part of the festivities.
[ad#longpost]The Ballroom, for the uninitiated (which considering it’s in Georgia and my audience is all over–might be a few of you), has windows on two walls that look into different exhibits. One shows the beluga whale tank, the other shows you Ocean Voyager, the ginormous 6.3 million gallon tank that’s home to four whale sharks and the only manta ray in residence at a North American aquarium. In other words, it’s pretty freaking cool.
We were greeted by the wait staff for the occasion (the thing was catered by Wolfgang Puck’s company) with champagne. Yes, even me, the tee-totaler, had about half a glass worth. Being far from my college lushy days–cheap date, that’s me. Anyway, we got to hang out for about an hour, wandering back and forth between the windows and gnawing on hors d’ouveres These included Colorado lamb chops with cilantro mint, artichoke agnolotti (a character name in a Godfather parody if I’ve ever heard one), brie pouches and mini-baked potatoes with truffles and caviar. Had never tried caviar before–actually was quite good. The whole experience of even just hanging out waiting for the dinner was pretty sweet. And of course, they had docents on hand to answer questions about the animals.
Seven o’clock, time for dinner. It was served buffet style with salad, quail with sweet potato gnocchi, filet mignon, asparagus, their version of mac and cheese (lobster, lobster cream and “mascarpone enriched orzo”), seared baramoundi (a fancy way of saying “seafood medley” with shrimp, mussels and red pepper aioli in clam broth) and potatoes. Plus a table of ridiculous amounts of dessert, including everything from flan to chocolate heart-topped cupcakes. Did I mention there was an open bar? No? Oh, well, open bar. Coffee and tea as well (my version of an open bar).
An hour for us to stuff our faces, then the lecture. It was delivered by a husband and wife team of biologists, Al and Patricia Dove, who talked about the ocean’s beasties making the beast with two backs. Or, considering the prevalence of group sex in the seas: a beast with variable numbers of backs. Some of the high points included a demonstration of just how much ejaculate a right whale produces when he achieves shangri-la (five gallons), walrus masturbation, and a montage of critter climaxes set to the 1812 Overture. I think you can imagine how that went. Quite entertaining.
Afterwards, we went on a backstage tour of the aquarium facilities, starting with the filtration system where they can handle all of Ocean Voyager’s water in just an hour. Impressive. We also got to visit the area at the top of the tank and go out onto the gantry. The whale sharks are freaking huge and you realize that–well, probably when you’re in the water with them it’s very obvious (no thanks)–but when they’re swimming beneath you…damn. Same thing with the manta ray. That sucker’s huge. We also saw above their reef exhibit and the wave machine that was created to crash in time with the music playing below.
At this point it was up to everybody to decide where to bed down for the night. Mats where provided all over the aquarium, it was just a matter of figuring out where–and we had been split into multiple tour groups, so the groups that got finished first got to pick first. Obviously, Voyager got crowded in a hurry–its alcoves and its sixty-one foot wide window were taken up quickly. Even for an aquaphobe like me, the tunnel that goes through part of Voyager might have been cool, but I dislike being around lots of people even more than I like water. With some exploration, I quickly determined that the balcony overlooking the belugas was completely empty. (As I wrote the first draft of this, there were only three other couples up here.)
At first, I was concerned that with the lights out in the beluga tank, we’d get nothing to watch until 6am when it was time to wake up. However, the belugas, being even paler than I am, swim up out of the night at times and check out the people crashed out at the bottom of their cold water tank. As if they were asking, “Don’t you people have homes?” Anyway, the rest of the time they’re just ghosts floating around in it, sometimes glimpse-able, sometimes not. One of the videos I took you can spot them in if you watch closely–I’ve embedded it below.
I can’t vouch for Ocean Voyager and its visibility, but it is a larger tank with more opportunity to get light into it–whereas the belugas are more confined. Still I think the beluga watching at night was pretty cool. If you see me there, just don’t take all the spots.
After hanging out with the belugas for a while and getting some writing done, I passed out. Then at six we were up for a breakfast in the cafeteria (muffin or cinnamon roll or fruit or whatnot) and then off for more tours. We went above the belugas and got to see their feeding time, which was pretty darn cool. We also went above the River Scout exhibit to see above the tanks there and also went through the Titanic exhibit, a pared down version of what I had seen before–but still no less cool. Especially the specimen jars featuring critters who live in and amongst the wreck. And we also paid a visit to the penguins, as they are currently kept backstage since the construction on the dolphin habitat would screw with them were they to stay in their normal condo.
Before we left, since we were in and could just mosey about, we stayed to watch the feeding in Ocean Voyager. Which is pretty crazy: the whale sharks hoover up the food given to them from folks either on the sides or in a raft (they have cameras that let you see above the tank from within the gallery) and everybody else just goes apeshit (whaleshit?) for the food cascading down from above. Most amusing was the guy on the mic trying to convince people to clear out so others could get in–“Looks like the feeding is just about over” for what must have been ten minutes.
The whole evening was pretty reasonably priced. We’re Aquarium members, so dinner, breakfast, lecture, sleepover and the whole nine was $135–$160 for non-members. From what I can tell, the admission to the aquarium plus a behind the scenes tour combo is $69 a head anyway. So really, when you lump everything else in–yes, it’s pricey as a whole, but for all you get, it’s sort of a ridiculous deal.
Was it a perfect experience? No…but this was their first year. I mentioned on my feedback sheet that I thought they could have setup the dinner tables and had them double as the lecture seating–as it was, we grabbed dessert and ate it in the lecture seats to make sure we got good ones. I also came up with the idea that you could have groups that were “veterans.” In other words, we’ve seen all the exhibits–give us the option of cool behind the scenes stuff and only the stuff that we can’t see everyday at the Aquarium. Also, is it possible to pay extra and pick a spot to crash? Just curious.
So would I recommend this? If fish bore you–and honestly, I don’t see how they could–then it’s probably not your bag. If you’re the type of person who thinks Blue Planet is some amazing shit, and grabbed hi-def so you could finally watch Planet Earth in Blu-Ray–then yes, this is perfect for you.