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A whale of an aquarium has Georgia on its mind

ATLANTA -- The whale sharks are kings of the 6-million-gallon tank, their presence sensed even before they emerge from the murky darkness, like massive star cruisers in a science fiction film.

But once visitors to the new Georgia Aquarium have seen Ralph and Norton, the only whale sharks on display outside of Asia, they will still have at least 99,998 more fish to go.

When the aquarium opens Wednesday, it will become the world's largest by almost all major standards of the industry. It was bankrolled almost exclusively by a $200 million gift from Home Depot Inc. cofounder Bernie Marcus.

''It's going to be the most unique aquarium in the world," said Marcus, who is 76.

The aquarium will also be the centerpiece of a downtown Atlanta revival aimed at drawing millions of tourists to the city.

Shaped like an abstract cruise ship looming over downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, the aquarium is expected to attract as many as 2 million visitors in its first year.

The aquarium was designed to hold 8 million gallons of water, and to be home to more than 100,000 fish. By comparison, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the nation's largest indoor aquarium, has 5 million gallons and about 20,000 fish.

The Atlanta aquarium's pair of juvenile whale sharks, characterized by their streamlined bodies and depressed, broad and flattened heads, could grow to more than 40 feet long, giving visitors a rare glimpse at the world's largest fish. When they arrived at the aquarium in June from Taiwan, one was measured at 15 1/2 feet and the other at 13 feet.

Also featured will be five beluga whales, two of them rescued from an amusement park in Mexico, in an 800,000-gallon tank.

The unusual fish on display, presentations that will include computer-generated images, spotlights, and music, and the sheer size of the project, have aquarium officials around the world buzzing, said Kristin Vehrs, interim executive director of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

''We know they are going to be doing state-of-the-art things at that aquarium," she said.

And it will be more than just a huge aquarium. There's a ''4-D" movie theater, which shows movies with 3-D animation and other special effects, and a banquet hall that can serve a sit-down dinner for up to 1,100 people catered by a company owned by the celebrity chef based in Los Angeles, Wolfgang Puck.

But not everyone is happy.

A handful of animal rights groups protested the plan to display whale sharks, saying the giant animals are more likely to die young in captivity. Aquarium officials and some independent biologists say those fears are based on old statistics and say the whale sharks were destined to become seafood when they were acquired.

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