On October 5th, 2013, Dr. Bruce Carlson, Science Officer and one of the designers of the world’s largest Aquarium, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, visited Fresno State to discuss designing and creating the Aquarium. The Aquarium was the brainchild of one of Atlanta’s wealthiest citizens, the founder of The Home Depot, Bernie Marcus, who ultimately put more than 200 million dollars of his fortune into realizing his dream.
Dr. Carlson, former director of the Waikiki Aquarium on Oahu in Hawai’i, was one of the first few scientists picked to design the Aquarium from an exhibits-first strategy that would ensure the animals were the center of attention. After a gift of 20 acres in downtown Atlanta and 3 years of planning and construction, the Aquarium opened on 11/23/2005.
Dr. Carlson described some of the incredible logistic and mechanical requirements of running the Aquarium, which has more than 10 million gallons of water. For instance, the filtration system for the gargantuan 6 million gallon whale shark exhibit moves more water in a given day than the entire city of Atlanta. Scrubbing the water clean for reuse in some of the marquee exhibits, like the coral reef tank, involved several types of filters: protein skimmers, sand filters.
Dr. Carlson described the unprecedented steps to bring juvenile whale sharks to the Aquarium from the coastal waters of Taiwan. They were captured as (relatively) small juveniles at a length of 4 meters – a large whale shark, the world’s largest fish, is an average of 7 meters, and some may reach 20 meters, much longer than a school bus. These giants were habituated to hand feeding and the frame that would support them as they were lifted out of the water for their trip to the US on a UPS 747, where they were the only freight. Because two of the first whale sharks exhibited at the Aquarium died, many believed the display was unsuited to their requirements, but Dr. Carlson explained that their care was a complete mystery, and an unforeseeable complication from a usually benign medication caused the sharks to stop eating. He explained that whale sharks are related to a relatively lethargic tribe of sharks that do not require extensive habitats for cruising, the way a pelagic species like a great white shark would.
Dr. Carlson described some of the groundbreaking research the Aquarium’s team has accomplished. The Aquarium was instrumental in the characterization of a new oceanic feeding congregation off the coast of Cancun, called the Afuera, where hundreds of whale sharks gather in a minuscule patch of ocean to feed on the reproduction of little thunny, a species of the scombrid family that includes tuna and mackerel.
Dr. Carlson took several questions from interested community members, describing the billion dollar revitalization boost delivered to the local economy of the Aquarium’s neighborhood and describing trends in Aquarium science. I found Dr. Carlson’s talk to be interesting and edifying.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Carlson’s appearance was sponsored by the Charter Members of Aquarius Aquarium Institute in cooperation with Fresno State’s Tri Beta Biology Club, the Redwoods in Yosemite and Aquarius Aquarium, Inc.