Whale sharks, albino alligators and zedonks. Visitors to Georgia’s zoos and aquariums can see these amazing creatures up close.
From the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta to smaller organizations that showcase Georgia wildlife and marine creatures, zoos and aquariums throughout the Peach State offer some memorable experiences for tour groups. Here are five for the animal lovers in your group.
The largest aquarium in the world sits in downtown Atlanta. Holding more than 10 million gallons of water, the Georgia Aquarium features four whale sharks and a host of manta rays. It is the only aquarium in the United States to display these creatures. They make their home in the aquarium’s Ocean Voyager gallery, which holds 6.3 million gallons of saltwater and is considered the largest aquarium exhibit in the world.
The aquarium opened in 2005 on land donated to the facility by Coca-Cola in the Centennial Olympic Park district, which hosted the 1996 Summer Olympics. The World of Coca-Cola opened next door.
“The goal was obviously to draw tourists and to be able to draw conventioneers coming to the Georgia World Congress Center [the city’s convention center],” said Will Ramsey, vice president of sales for the aquarium.
The aquarium is always growing and expanding because its founders want to make it a repeat destination for all types of visitors, not just groups.
“It makes an amazing day out for people,” Ramsey said. “I think the aquarium is great for anyone of all ages; from a family with a senior grandparent and child, everyone loves the aquarium.”
Chestatee Wildlife Preserve and Zoo
Group visitors to Chestatee Wildlife Preserve and Zoo have an opportunity to get closer to nature while learning the stories of the preserve’s many rescued and orphaned animals. Walking along acres of trails, visitors can observe the zoo’s white tigers, grizzly bear, Siberian tiger, monkeys and emus. They can also view herds of elk or see hedgehogs, exotic birds and alligators.
Two of the zoo’s most famous residents are zedonks, which are hybrid donkey and zebra mixes. They look like donkeys with zebra-striped legs.
The zoo is a nonprofit organization that is run with the help of volunteers. Visitors to the preserve and zoo have the opportunity to participate in many types of animal encounters, including breakfast with the big cats, where guests can feed the tigers, zebras, bears, elk, emus, wolves and zedonks.
Groups can attend the Small Animal Encounter Show, where zookeepers introduce many small animals, like exotic birds and hedgehogs, and explain where the animals come from, the characteristics of the species and interesting facts. A guided walking tour of the zoo takes about 45 minutes, and the tour guide talks a bit about each animal and how it was rescued. There is a reptile house with giant toads, snakes and bearded lizards; pony rides and hayrides take visitors to harder-to-reach sections of the zoo for more intimate encounters with animals that aren’t on the walking trail.
The Flint RiverQuarium is a rare freshwater aquarium that interprets the Flint River watershed as the river flows through Georgia toward the Gulf of Mexico.
All the aquarium’s exhibits highlight one section of the river environment, including a re-creation of a blue-hole spring, a hole that can crop up on the edge of a river and that is connected to the aquifer below.
“There will be a break in the limestone between the surface and the underwater aquifer where a blue-water spring bubbles up,” said Wendy Bellacomo, marketing manager for the aquarium. “They are something unique to our area.” The RiverQuarium is built around the blue-hole spring, with exhibits wrapping around and winding their way through the building, detailing the wildlife in area lakes and swamps. At the bottom is a big viewing window that looks into the bottom of the blue-hole exhibit, where the larger catfish and sturgeon hang out.
The facility also has an outdoor aviary that showcases birds native to the area that needed to be rescued in some way, such as wading birds, songbirds, quail and others that migrate through the area. A white albino alligator named Moonshine is an added attraction. An outdoor garden helps the facility grow food for the animals. Educational group tours, as well as group discounts, are available.
Zoo at Chehaw
Also in Albany, the Zoo at Chehaw is an education- and conservation-focused zoo in an 800-acre nature park. The zoo is home to 238 animals representing 125 species, and groups are invited to participate in animal feedings and keeper talks every weekend. The park offers a free African Veldt ride, a trailer ride through a 40-acre wildlife exhibit that features seven species of free-roaming animals.
Groups love to take curated zoo tours to learn more about the animals, and the zoo also offers hands-on interactive experiences with snakes, baby crocodiles and hedgehogs. Chehaw is willing to work with groups to plan any type of event that includes the zoo and the other features of Chehaw Park, like the splash park, the large wooden playground and the camping sites. The park also offers fishing, biking, walking and horse trails, said Morgan Burnette, spokesperson for Chehaw.
The area was first developed as Chehaw State Park in 1937 on 586 acres of donated land. It has since expanded to nearly 800 acres that encompass moss-covered cypress swamps, hardwood forests and wiregrass habitat. It was named after the Chiha, or Chehaw, a tribe of Creek Indians that lived in the area. The wild animal park opened to the public in 1977 and became the Zoo at Chehaw in 2016.
North Georgia Zoo and Petting Farm
The North Georgia Zoo and Petting Farm is all about visitor experiences and animal encounters, a fact that makes it a favorite with both younger and older generations. The zoo trains many of its animals to be able to go out into the community as ambassadors. Some are used in commercials, including “Vampire Diaries” and “Coma.”
The zoo hosts hundreds of animals, including camels, sloths, kangaroos and wolves and offers groups the opportunity to personalize their visit by booking a behind-the-scenes tour where they can visit animals that aren’t on display yet and that the zoo would like to have more interactions with people on a smaller scale. The tour lasts about 2 1/2 hours and includes interactions with kangaroos, fennec foxes, lemurs, bush babies, gibbons, monkeys, parrots, birds of prey, deer, animals native to Georgia and wildcats. Every visit is different.
Visitors can also sign up for a camel encounter, where they take a wagon ride up to the ridge to view water buffaloes, yaks, highland cows and camels. The highlight is getting to meet and feed the camels. Other encounters get your group close to otters, wolves, wild cats, porcupines and reptiles.
Most group tours are limited to 25 people. Sunset tours give visitors a different perspective on the zoo and allow them to spend time with the wolves.