This Southern US State Has The Largest Aquarium In The Country

When you picture Atlanta, Georgia, visions of the ocean might not immediately spring to mind, given that it's a landlocked city with the world's busiest airport. The nearest beach is over 250 miles away on Tybee Island, where you can link up with the best of the southern East Coast on this road trip. Riding the Marta rail through metro Atlanta, you're more likely to see high-rises than anything resembling the ocean's depths. However, the downtown Atlanta area is still teeming with sea life, as it's also the home of the immense Georgia Aquarium. This is the largest aquarium in the U.S. (and the entire Western Hemisphere), and it's the only one outside Asia where you'll find whale sharks.

To give you an idea of how big the aquarium is, consider how much water it holds: over 11 million gallons. Before it opened in 2005, it was initially supplied with enough tap water for 160,000 bathtubs, according to HowStuffWorks. The water was then treated and salted to make it habitable for marine animals. Constantly recycled, more than half the water now is in the Ocean Voyager, a viewing gallery with one of the most enormous aquarium windows on earth. This is where you'll see whale sharks swimming around; they span 18 to 32 feet, while the conveyor belt tunnel under the huge fish tank runs 100 feet. A sign in the exhibit explains that the acrylic window holding the water in place is "up to 17 times stronger than glass."

See the animals of the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta

Atlanta is a city movie and TV lovers should add to their bucket list, but if you're more partial to "Finding Nemo" than "The Walking Dead," you'll want to head to the Georgia Aquarium. In addition to whale sharks, the aquarium has clownfish — true ones, unlike the false anemonefish, Nemo. It also has powder blue tangs (not quite Dory, but same species) and green sea turtles (without surfer-dude accents, or any ability to speak, that we know of).

Sharks and rays are well-represented at the Georgia Aquarium, with different species such as hammerheads, tiger sharks, devil rays, manta rays, and stingrays. Some of the many other animals you can observe while roaming the 550-square-foot facility include beluga whales, bottlenose dolphins, electric eels, harbor seals, piranhas, puffins, moon jellies, seahorses, and spiny lobsters. Regional variety can be found in the likes of African penguins and pancake tortoises, American alligators, Asian small-clawed otters, California sea lions, Japanese spider crabs, and giant Pacific octopuses (or if you prefer, octopi).

It's cute to see an otter floating on its back without a care in the world at the Georgia Aquarium. However, the real regional star here is the whale shark, the largest fish known to have ever lived on this planet. You can see whale sharks in Japanese aquariums like Osaka's Kaiyukan or Okinawa's Churaumi Aquarium (both of which the Georgia Aquarium partners with), but on this side of the globe, they're unique to Atlanta.

Have more interactive fun in and around the aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium is just across from Centennial Olympic Park — built to help beautify Atlanta's downtown for the 1996 Summer Games and the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympics. From the aquarium, it's a 10-minute walk to the Fountain of Rings, the world's largest interactive fountain. Speaking of watery interactions, you don't have to be an Olympic swimmer or a marine biologist to have those at the Georgia Aquarium.

Though it's outside the regular ticket price (and could set you back a few hundred dollars), visitors can don wetsuits and swim or dive with the whale sharks. The aquarium also offers hands-on encounters where you can get in the water with sharks and rays. A cheaper option for budget travelers might be the aquarium's touch pools, including the newer ones with sharks and rays, available from summer 2024 onward.

There are dolphin and sea lion shows at the Georgia Aquarium, though it may be awkward to see a sign for "sustainable seafood" onstage at the latter. If you'd rather not be reminded of seafood at an aquarium, you can find some vegetarian options at the Coastline Cafe, which has views of downtown Atlanta. It's worth mentioning here that some of the aquarium's animals were rescued, and they're intelligent enough to offer a flipper or foot and "volunteer" for veterinary treatment. For the ultimate experience, the Georgia Aquarium holds periodic "sleepovers" where you can spend the night with the fish.