ATLANTA – The whale sharks are kings of the 6-million-gallon tank, their presence palpable 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 Nov. 23, it will become the world's largest by virtually all major standards of the industry. It was bankrolled almost exclusively by a $200 million gift from Home Depot Inc. co-founder Bernie Marcus.
"It's going to be the most unique aquarium in the world," said Marcus, 76. "I don't want to say the best. (Status as) the best will come after people view it and decide."
The aquarium will also be the centerpiece of a downtown Atlanta revival aimed at drawing millions more visitors to the Southern city each year.
The aquarium neighbors Centennial Olympic Park and lies across the street from the CNN Center and the Georgia Dome. In 2007, a new World of Coca-Cola museum is expected to open next door. The city also is a finalist for NASCAR's hall of fame, which would be located in what is now a parking lot near the other attractions.
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 be home to more than 100,000 fish. By comparison, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago — the nation's largest indoor aquarium for decades — 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. At the time 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 — and even jealous, 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 celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.
Marcus, who became a billionaire after co-founding Home Depot in 1979 with current Atlanta Falcons football franchise owner Arthur Blank Jr., the aquarium is a $200 million "thank you" note to the city of Atlanta and state of Georgia.
"I have what I have today because of the people in this state," he said.
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 aquarium's whale sharks were destined to become seafood when they were acquired.
Some Atlanta-area residents are complaining about the ticket prices and lack of a family pass. For a family of five, the cost of individual annual passes will be nearly $250, while one-day general admission would run $96.50. For a single adult, a one-day pass is $22.75. For children, a one-day ticket is $17.
Planners say visitors will consider the price a bargain when they see what's in store. More than 40,000 annual passes have been sold, including 8,000 on the first day they were available.
Marcus said he knew Home Depot would take off when he learned customers were driving nearly two hours, from Athens, Ga., to his first store in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta. He said he will use a similar standard to determine whether his aquarium is a success.
"I'll know it's successful when we find out people are coming from all over the United States and groups are coming from other countries," he said. "When we see them coming here, then we'll know we were right."