At the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, you can gawk at a whale shark, the biggest fish in the world. They have four of the large-mouthed leviathans up there, the longest coming in at just under 24 feet.
Savannah's setup is a tad more modest. At the UGA Marine Extension Service Aquarium on Skidaway Island, there's a three-foot bonnethead shark, swimming inside an enormous tank alongside a pair of long, svelte silver tarpon.
Here's the payoff: The whale sharks in Atlanta were imported from Taiwan. Everything at the Skidaway aquarium - from the bonnethead to the yellow and orange seahorses to the 2-year-old loggerhead sea turtle named Eddie - is indigenous to coastal Georgia.
"We display only animals that can be found locally here," explains curator Devin J. Dumont, "from our inshore habitats - salt marshes and tidal creeks - to our offshore habitats like Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.
"We pride ourselves on displaying local species because it's a very intimate setting that allows a unique Georgia experience. The kind of experience that you don't really get by going to Atlanta."
The University of Georgia opened the aquarium in 1972, after the dissolution of the Georgia Ocean Sciences Center, and the acquisition of the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography by the state university system.
Until the arrival of the Georgia Aquarium in 2005, it was the only saltwater aquarium in the state.
The aquarium aids numerous marine science research groups, from all over Georgia and beyond, and works frequently with Gray's Reef and the Department of Natural Resources. The UGA Shellfish Research Laboratory is housed next door.
"We like to take the research that's being done and put it on display in a way that the public can understand," says curator Karin M. Paquin, "and then also gain respect for that research being done, and why it's important."
It's important because the state's coastal ecology - including 450,000 acres of salt marshes - is constantly in peril due to human interference (construction, oil spills, overpopulation, overfishing, the list goes on).
"What we're trying to do," Paquin explains, "is showcase the local species that are misunderstood, and show people that they're natural here. And that in order for the ecosystem to work, we need to have these animals."
Our tidal creeks, for example, are imperative for the survival of innumerable sea creatures, from schooling fish to the bottom-dwelling horseshoe crab, in their pre-adult stages. Loggerhead and green turtles nest on our beaches.
Although the curators and their volunteer staff collect many of the species for the aquarium, there's a two-way street in operation.
"Acquisitions goes beyond just collection - it includes a barter/trade system and sharing," Paquin says. "We get things a lot tinier here - so, say someone is looking for a small red drum, we get them in the nursery stage, and we grow it up.
"The next thing you know, the South Carolina Aquarium has a huge tank and needs a larger drum. So they'll take that one, and in return we might get a common octopus, which is hard to come across. There are a lot of close ties between different aquariums."
The UGA Marine Extension Service Aquarium is funded almost entirely through public admission fees, program fees (there are daily field trips and study sessions for the amateur oceanographer) and the ongoing participation of school groups. An on-site dormitory and cafeteria means groups can stay for extended periods of time. And they do.
At the top of the curators' wish list is a jellyfish exhibit - the animals are notoriously difficult to maintain in captivity - which, Paquin says, will focus on the cannonball jelly, common in our area, and its use as a potential revenue source for local shrimpers. Cannonball jellies are in-demand delicacies in Asia.
The complex exhibit's proposed cost is $30,000, one-third of which has already been raised.
"I would love to see us expand in terms of our research as well," adds Dumont. "Because we are ideally situated right here on the Skidaway River. We have great access.
"The only way to make it happen would be to get a grant and then to actually hire on more help, like research technicians. We're already working 50-hour weeks, so it would be difficult for just the two of us. But I would still like to see that happen."
Times, tide and Tybee
For more than 20 years, the Tybee Island Marine Science Center has been housed in a small concrete building a stone's throw from the pier and pavilion. Many tourists mistake the unimposing facility for an ice cream shop or a rest area, unaware that it contains a thriving microcosm of coastal Georgia wildlife - from fish to crabs to turtles - living (and swimming) in clear, impeccably maintained tanks.
Still, says curator Chris Williamson, "We normally don't call ourselves an aquarium. We usually say we're a coastal gallery or something to that effect."
Operated by the Tybee Island Marine Science Foundation, the Center keeps a strong focus on education, giving classes and workshops and leading regularly scheduled walks on the tidal beach and through the marshes.
There are also programs to educate the public about sea turtles and their annual nesting presence on Tybee Beach.
There are, Williamson explains, a small number of species on view that aren't indigenous to this area. They were grandfathered in - that is, the animals were in the Center before the (relatively recent) decision to restrict things to coastal Georgia, its ecology and its conservation.
"We are trying to gear the gallery to more of a coastal Georgia experience," he says. "Some of those animals, like our stars and stripes puffer, and some of the things in the coral tank, were donated. As that stuff dies off, as all animals eventually do, we'll not replace them with other coral things. We'll only replace them with coastal Georgia animals."
The Georgia Department of Natural Resources recently granted permission for the center to put a live loggerhead sea turtle hatchling on display, which has Williamson and his small staff over the moon. The animal will probably come from a nest laid this summer right on the island.
A deep, clear, roomy tank awaits its new occupant.
The Tybee Center has four small rooms of exhibits. There are terrestrial snakes and turtles, alongside the marine tanks, and (like the UGA Extension Service Aquarium) a "touch tank" for small children to handle shells, small crabs, starfish and the like.
"It's hard to fit everything that we want into such a small building," Williamson says, "but right now we're just doing everything we can to make it the best experience that we can."
UGA Marine Extension Service Aquarium
Where: 30 Ocean Science Circle, Skidaway Island
Hours: Weekdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturdays 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Sundays
Admission: Adults $4; children 3-12 $2
Tybee Island Marine Science Center "Coastal Georgia Gallery"
Where: 1510 Strand Ave., Tybee Island
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Gallery admission: $4 adults, $3 children over age 3
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