The fish, of course, eat fish. They also eat green Jell-O. Every morning starting around 6, the staff of the Georgia Aquarium, the world's largest, works for hours in a stainless-steel commissary that would be the envy of any five-star restaurant. They sort, inspect, and chop—and quality standards meet human tolerances: "When in doubt, throw it out." The beluga whales each eat 54 pounds of herring a day. The green Jell-O delivers algae and other nutrients captive critters might not otherwise get. The goal is to keep all 120,000 beings here happy—and fat enough that they won't turn on one another.
As amazing as the year-old Georgia Aquarium is for visitors—nearly 4 million will likely gaze into the tanks this year, 2 million more than expected—it is also a meticulously planned work space. Staffers visited some 55 aquariums in 13 countries, compiling the best design ideas from each before the first blueprint was drawn. The facility, in downtown Atlanta, cost more than a quarter-billion dollars, donated by Bernie Marcus, cofounder of
Work areas are generous. Among the most distinctive is the Ray Way, a corridor around the animal-care areas that is nearly as wide as a two-lane highway. It's named for Ray Davis, a Sea World veteran and the aquarium's head of zoological operations, who constantly fended off architects and engineers who seemed determined to defeat its purpose—moving whales, sharks, and rays as painlessly as possible. "Every time we'd look at new plans, there'd be a column or piping in there," says marine biologist Bruce Carlson, the aquarium's second employee. The aquarium has labs for testing the water chemistry—sometimes multiple times a day—in all 50 display tanks. It also has a hospital with ICU "beds" for ailing fish, treatment rooms that can be chilled to 55 degrees for sea otters, an autopsy room (sad but true), and cranes and lifts that can handle up to 20 tons. The aquarium has a behind-the-scenes "education loop" for waves of schoolchildren, who also have a separate lunch room.
There are some things only experienced aquarium staff would notice. Executive director Jeff Swanagan, former director of Tampa's Florida Aquarium and the first employee here, says that at every aquarium in the world, you'll find drains in the floor that are dry—and 3 feet away, a standing puddle of water. "All day," he says, "someone squeegees puddles into drains." So when construction crews poured concrete for the first floor, Swanagan says, "I went down to the general foreman and said, 'Is that drain the low point in the floor?'" The crews got the message: At the Georgia Aquarium, the water flows into the drains. No squeegees required.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of Fast Company magazine.