No longer just any old fish in the sea, aquariums across the nation are going high-tech and high-dollar to lure visitors.


OH MY GOSH, he's swimming right toward me. (Cue the Jaws music.) All 18 feet and 3,000-plus pounds of him. And he looks hungry. The whale shark's massive body slices easily through the water, the giant fish fixing his steely gaze on me like I'm tonight's main course. For a moment I'm frozen, unable to move. What should I do?

Get out my camera and take a picture, I guess.

This menacing-looking creature is one of a pair of tropical whale sharks on view at the new Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, and I'm thankful that there's a giant sheet of Plexiglas separating the two of us. (Besides, as I later learned, whale sharks much prefer a diet of squid and sardines to Southern writers.)

The big swimmer's name is Ralph, and he and his pal Norton are the only whale sharks on exhibit anywhere in North America. Naturally, I was never in any real danger from Ralph, but seeing a monster like that barreling toward you evokes the kind of raw, unbridled emotion that you can't help but experience on a trip to the Georgia Aquarium. The largest of its kind in the world, the Georgia Aquarium is one of a new breed of aquariums that mesmerize visitors with their lifelike habitats, rare breeds of fish, high-tech displays, and innovative educational programs, all created by megamillion-dollar price tags.

Apparently, having visitors stand in front of a stagnant tank or two staring at a bunch of plain-Jane ocean dwellers just doesn't cut it anymore. And that's why you're seeing the addition of features like intimate behind-the-scenes tours, 3-D movies complete with crooning Nemo-like characters, food service from celebrity chefs like Wolfgang Puck, and even elaborate ballrooms that can be rented out for parties. Says Ken Peterson, spokesperson for California's famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, "In addition to new aquariums like the one in Atlanta, you're seeing more and more major additions and renovations to existing aquariums. It's a constant effort to keep our facilities fresh and inviting so visitors keep coming back." That effort is paying off, according to the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, which claims that since 2002, aquarium memberships have been at an all-time high, and that in many cities, aquariums and zoos have the highest attendance of any cultural institution in town.