Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Atlanta and the Gentle Giants

Atlanta skyline at night.

After dropping everyone at the airport in Nashville it was time to get ready for The Best of the Best in Douglas Georgia the following weekend. I made my way to Atlanta where I would spend a couple of days before moving on to Douglas Georgia where the contest is held every year. While in Atlanta there were a few things that I wanted to see. The Georgia Aquarium was top priority as well as visiting CNN headquarters and taking the tour there. I know Coca Cola’s head office is here and I thought it would be neat to see Coke World but that was going to be a maybe. I also needed to see the Peachtree Plaza in person. This goes back to my childhood when I was an avid reader of the Guinness Book of World Records. The Plaza was in there because it was the highest skyscraper that was all hotel in the Western Hemisphere. It as a very cylindrical shaped building that is very distinctive.

From wikipedia
On March 14, 2008, the Westin, along with other neighboring skyscrapers, sustained moderate damage when a tornado tore through downtown Atlanta, with over 500 windows broken. It was the first tornado to have hit the downtown area. As of March 2009[update], the Westin is the only building still to have not replaced its broken windows, instead still being covered with black-painted plywood on the outside, and drywall on the inside. This is because the ¼-inch (6mm) uninsulated glass is no longer made by PPG Industries, and even identical new windows would look mismatched because of weathering due to three decades of hot sunshine. Additionally, new building codes require insulated glass that can withstand winds up to 90 miles per hour (145 km/h) instead of 75 miles per hour (121 km/h), necessitating heavier and more expensive glass. Replacement of all 5600 windows is expected to begin in June or July 2009 and continue from the top down until summer 2010 at a cost over 20 million dollars, which will be covered by insurance.[5][6] Until then, 81 of its 1068 rooms are unavailable, down from an initial 320.[7][8] The new windows will also be mirrored, but will feature a bronze tint.

By now you may have noticed I have a thing for architecture, high rises and skylines. My wife is amazed that when we are watching a television program that pans a skyline I can usually tell her which city it is. I collect pictures of city skylines and in fact just bought one on our trip while we were in St. Louis.

Westin Peachtree Plaza

I found a hotel in Atlanta about eight miles south of downtown which isn’t too bad for distance. I tried to stay closer but I can assure there is no place to park a truck and trailer anywhere near there. It is not like Canada where we make some room for RV’s near our tourist destinations. The world of Coca Cola, CNN and the Georgia Aquarium are all down town so you must make provisions for travelling. I did talk a man and woman to letting me stay in their company’s parking lot for a modest fee (bribery) which made it easy for me.
My goal was to be at the aquarium at 12:30 and spend about two hours before heading to CNN for the tour. After that I had picked out a Brazilian Barbecue House that I would eat dinner at.

The Georgia Aquarium

When I walked in to the aquarium I was taken back by the whole thing. It is new, up to date and spectacular. As some of you know I used to work at the Vancouver Aquarium as a LSO or Life Support Operator. That is in the engineering department and our role is to maintain everything it takes to make the Aquarium exist. The Beluga, dolphin, sea lion, and otter pools as well as all the aquariums, pumps, chemicals, heat, plumbing etc., you get the picture. However the Vancouver Aquarium is old and part of it was built in the fifties. It takes a lot of work just to keep up with maintenance.
I struck up a conversation with one of the employees giving a lecture about the Coral Reef tank and after a few minutes the fact that I was an LSO at the Vancouver Aquarium got some special attention from her. I was taken behind the scenes to meet the engineering staff and then given a tour of the aquariums set-up. Much like the aquarium back home but new, state of the art and HUGE! The Ocean Voyager exhibit is the largest aquarium in the world. It holds 6.3 million gallons and is the size of a football field. The first third of the tank is visible to the public while the back two thirds are behind the scenes. Consider this; the entire Wild Coast Dolphin exhibit in the Vancouver Aquarium holds one million gallons. The reason for the enormous size? The co-founder of Home Depot, Bernie Marcus, donated 250 million dollars towards the building of the aquarium with just one stipulation; it has to house whale sharks. Yes the largest fish in the world. The Ocean Voyager exhibit is filled with four whale sharks, two Manta Rays, stingrays, a hammer head shark as well as other species of sharks, groupers, jacks etc. The glass holding back the water in the large movie screen size viewing area is two feet thick acrylic. It is the most breathtaking display of animals you will see anywhere.

One of four whale sharks.

Nandi one of the Manta Rays.

After my tour I was taken back upstairs where I was introduced to the Dive master for a program they offered. It was not scheduled for today but my enthusiasm allowed me an opportunity that I could have never imagined. At four pm I went for a classroom session inside the aquarium as well as another behind the scenes of a different area, the topside of Ocean Voyager. I was then given a wetsuit, mask, fins and regulator and tank. Together a group of five of us entered the Ocean Voyager aquarium just as the aquarium was closing at 5pm. We swam for at least thirty minutes with the whale sharks, Hammerhead shark, Tiger sharks, and Nurse Sharks, Manta rays, and Sting rays. The aquarium that I was in disbelief when I saw it for the first time a few hours ago was now my exhibit as well.

I was not afraid of the sharks at all and I was at peace as I watched them at arms length away. This was one of the coolest things I have ever done in my life. At one point one of the Whale sharks came from behind me and rose up until it brushed against my body for its entire length as it passed me! Near the end of our swim one of the animal husbandry staff had come in and started feeding by putting Krill in the pool. He was unaware that we were in the pool and it started a feeding response from the Manta rays. Nandi the big one came swooping up from in front and below me and passed underneath me by inches. She is fifteen feet in width from wing tip to wing tip. Huge!
After our swim we went back for debriefing of our swim and got to watch some video footage. My two hour trip that was supposed to be done by 2-3 pm lasted until 7pm, two hours after the aquarium closed. I did not make it to the CNN tour or to Coke world but I did something much more spectacular then that. I fell asleep that night thinking about “swimming with the Gentle Giants”.


  1. funny how just when you think you've seen it all, life throws a moment your way that reminds us of how truly wonderful it can be....
    ...personally I would have been at the Coca Cola plant swimming around in their tanks ;)
    Have lots more fun Justin,

  2. Man you have had one hell of a trip!