Ultrasounds on Whale Sharks Deepen Mysteries of This Big Fish

Whale sharks are the ocean’s biggest fish, and perhaps its biggest mystery. With the goal of unlocking secrets about female reproduction, new methods were developed to conduct ultrasounds on free-swimming whale sharks.

But the results weren’t exactly what researchers had expected or hoped. The findings, published recently in the journal Endangered Species Research, quash the leading scientific theory that the exceptionally large females with bulging bellies that show up annually in the Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador and near St. Helena Island are pregnant. They aren’t.

It’s a head scratcher, really. We know a lot about male whale sharks, but little about females because they don’t congregate the way males do. We had hoped to confirm that the females were pregnant so we could track their movements and locate important pupping grounds.
- Dr. Al Dove, vice president of Science and Education at Georgia Aquarium and co-author on the research

The research, led by Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, in collaboration with Marine Megafauna Foundation, Galapagos Whale Shark project and Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador, included developing underwater ultrasound technology which was coupled with conducting blood draws, a technique developed by Georgia Aquarium on free-swimming whale sharks.

“To our surprise,” Dove said. “None of the sharks were pregnant.”

One of the greatest secrets that whale sharks hold is where they give birth. Truly little is understood about their reproductive lifecycle because only one pregnant female – caught by a commercial fishing boat in 1995 – has ever been examined. Births have never been recorded.

Whale shark populations are declining, and the species is at risk of extinction. The best hope for protecting and conserving them is understanding them – their movements, the habitats they need protected, and what is posing the greatest threat to survival.

That is one reason Georgia Aquarium is shifting their research focus from Galapagos and St. Helena to Taiwan. The only pregnant female ever recorded was caught in Taiwanese waters, and much more needs to be known about the biodiversity, abundance, and migration dynamics of sharks in Taiwan.

The Aquarium, National Taiwan Ocean University (NTOU) and Taiwan’s Fisheries Research Institute (TFRI) recently entered a 10-year conservation program with Georgia Aquarium that will compile baseline data on multiple marine species living off Taiwanese shores. The research will include placing receivers onto fishing trap nets throughout Taiwan’s coastal waters and acoustic tags onto individual animals to track where they travel and for how long.


“There is so much for us to learn about whale sharks, and this partnership has great potential to help us uncover details about the whale sharks who visit these waters,” Dove said. “We are excited to embark on research in this region. There is much to learn and contribute to conservation knowledge for not only whale sharks, but other threatened shark and ray species as well.”

Georgia Aquarium Partners with Georgia Natural Gas® to Launch a New Interactive Element in Its Southern Sea Otter Exhibit

Georgia Aquarium has partnered with Georgia Natural Gas (GNG) to add a new interactive element in its southern sea otter exhibit. This innovative feature will include two interactive games that teach visitors the important role southern sea otters play in reducing carbon emissions while also learning how guests can help protect the environment by making their natural gas usage carbon neutral with the Greener Life® program from GNG.

Through these two interactive games, Georgia Aquarium guests can learn about this important ecological connection in a fun and engaging way. Guests can challenge themselves or go head-to-head with another player as they attempt to earn as many carbon offsets as possible by collecting sea urchins or knocking out carbon emissions within a time limit to save the kelp.

Kelp is a seaweed that thrives in cool coastal waters worldwide, often in groups called kelp forests. Kelp use photosynthesis to turn carbon dioxide (CO₂) into biomass and can naturally reduce a substantial amount of carbon emissions. Kelp is anchored to the seafloor by a root-like structure called a holdfast. A large population of sea urchins can decimate a kelp forest by eating the holdfasts. By hunting sea urchins, sea otters keep the population in check – and in turn the kelp forests can thrive and continue to reduce carbon emissions through photosynthesis. Sea otters are considered a keystone species because of their role in keeping this underwater ecosystem in balance.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to reduce our environmental impact and to share that message with our guests,” said Michael Lewis, vice president of exhibits and projects at Georgia Aquarium. “This new interactive feature gives us the opportunity to educate guests on the importance of reducing carbon emissions in an engaging way. Working with Georgia Natural Gas to create this exhibit for our guests was a simple choice for us since we already partner with them to reduce our own emissions footprint using GNG’s Greener Life for Business program. Combining our message of promoting the conservation of wildlife species with the protection of our planet has given our guests a fun, hands-on addition to our popular sea otter exhibit.”

“We are always looking for innovative ways to reduce our environmental impact and to share that message with our guests,” said Michael Lewis, vice president of exhibits and projects at Georgia Aquarium. “This new interactive feature gives us the opportunity to educate guests on the importance of reducing carbon emissions in an engaging way. Working with Georgia Natural Gas to create this exhibit for our guests was a simple choice for us since we already partner with them to reduce our own emissions footprint using GNG’s Greener Life for Business program. Combining our message of promoting the conservation of wildlife species with the protection of our planet has given our guests a fun, hands-on addition to our popular sea otter exhibit.”

“Georgia Natural Gas is keenly focused on helping our customers reduce their carbon footprint, which is why we make it simple for them to offset emissions from their natural gas use with Greener Life,” said John Jamieson, vice president of retail operations at GNG. “Educating the public about the important role sea otters also play in reducing emissions by sponsoring this new exhibit at Georgia Aquarium is a natural extension of our work. We hope visitors will enjoy the exhibit and join us in the important work of protecting our environment.”

The Greener Life program is an optional product from GNG that helps its consumers do their part for the environment and reduce their carbon emissions footprint. For all those participating, GNG uses Environmental Protection Agency standards to calculate the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from customers’ use of natural gas. GNG then purchases and retires carbon offsets to balance the impact of those customers’ emissions. The greenhouse gas emissions being offset by the Greener Life program are those associated with the combustion of natural gas at the point of consumption only, and do not include lifecycle emission that occur during extraction, production, or delivery.

Visit Georgia Aquarium to check out this new interactive installation in their southern sea otter exhibit and to learn more about the importance of reducing carbon emissions and protecting this crucial species. Residential consumers looking to lessen their environmental impact can visit gng.com/greenerlife.


About Georgia Natural Gas

Georgia Natural Gas is the leading natural gas provider in Georgia and part of SouthStar Energy Services. SouthStar is owned by Southern Company Gas, a wholly owned subsidiary of Southern Company (NYSE: SO). SouthStar also operates as Ohio Natural Gas, Florida Natural Gas, Maryland Energy, Pennsylvania Energy, Grand Rapids Energy (in Michigan), and in other parts of the Southeast as SouthStar Energy Services. SouthStar’s subsidiaries in Illinois operate as Illinois Energy and Illinois Energy Solutions. For more information, visit www.southstarenergy.com

About Southern Company Gas

Southern Company Gas is a wholly owned subsidiary of Atlanta-based Southern Company (NYSE:SO), America’s premier energy company. Southern Company Gas serves approximately 4.3 million natural gas customers through its regulated distribution companies in four states with approximately 666,000 retail customers through its companies that market natural gas. Other businesses include investments in interstate pipelines and ownership and operation of natural gas storage facilities. For more information, visit www.southerncompanygas.com

This article was published on: November 15, 2021

Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS

Two California sea lions have relocated to Georgia Aquarium from a partner facility in Texas. Six-year-old Alex and five-year-old Josie were deemed non-releasable by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) after it was determined they would not be able to survive on their own. Unfortunately, Alex had a cataract in his left eye, while Josie had cataracts in both eyes. Cataracts can impair vision and could impact a sea lion’s survival in the ocean because it makes it more difficult to search for food and avoid predators.

Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS
Six-year-old Alex prior to surgery
Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 7
Five-year-old Josie prior to surgery

Our teams focused on establishing a positive relationship with the sea lions and building mutual trust with them as they settled into their new home. This trust is important because it helps our teams facilitate medical related behaviors allowing us to provide the best care possible. For example, Alex and Josie learned target training to help them receive eye drops and tactile training to acclimate them to physical exams.


Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 6
Alex practices receiving eye drops in preparation for surgery

After the sea lions became more comfortable with our teams, it was time to safely evaluate their individual cataracts under anesthesia with a specialist. This was done to assess the severity of the cataracts, if their vision could be improved, and the best treatment for each sea lion.


Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 5
Georgia Aquarium staff veterinarian Dr. Michelle Davis reviews a radiograph of Alex’s skull during pre-surgical diagnostics.
Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 4
Under anesthesia, Alex’s left eye is imaged by consulting veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Carmen Colitz to evaluate vision prognosis.

Upon further examination, it was discovered that Alex and Josie each had a detached retina – Alex in his left eye with his cataract and Josie in her right eye with her cataract. Josie’s left eye with a cataract was small and did not require surgical intervention but will be monitored for the rest of her life. The detached retina discovered in Alex and Josie resulted in irreparable blindness in those eyes. After careful consideration of all options, the decision was made to remove the severely damaged eyes to minimize any chance of infection, discomfort, or complications.


Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 3
Consulting veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Carmen Colitz performs surgery on Josie’s right eye.

Following the success of the surgeries, Alex and Josie have recovered remarkably and are continuing to bond with their fellow sea lions and caretakers.

Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 2
Alex post-op
Sea Lions Alex & Josie Receive Surgery for Cataracts: PHOTOS 1
Josie post-op

To continue following Alex and Josie’s stories, tune in to our new show The Aquarium on Animal Planet. For more animal updates, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This article was published on: June 18, 2019

Two New Residents and 3,800 Pounds Arrive at Georgia Aquarium

You may see some additional larger-than-life residents at Georgia Aquarium– totaling more than 3,800 pounds. Two new beluga whales are settling in with their new pod in the Cold Water Quest gallery alongside resident whales, Qinu, Nunavik, and Maple.

On Saturday, February 9th, male beluga whale Imaq (EE-mack) and female beluga whale Whisper were welcomed to Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Less than 30 beluga whales remain in North American accredited facilities; which makes it crucial for facilities to collaboratively sustain the population, provide opportunities for research, and continue connecting millions of people with these incredible animals.

Imaq is 31 years old and will now be the largest whale at Georgia Aquarium weighing in at nearly 2,000 pounds. He will serve as a great role model for 9-year-old male, Nunavik.  Whisper is 19 years old and is marble-gray in color and is known to be quite vocal, like the other females, Maple and Qinu. Imaq and Whisper will be introduced to the other whales over the course of their first week at the Aquarium and watched carefully as the new group determines their social structure. Beluga whales are very gregarious and while their social groups may change over their lifetimes, it’s very important in their daily life. The trainers caring for them each day will be incorporating them into training sessions, enrichment, and preventive healthcare sessions.

Beluga whales are typically found in arctic waters near Alaska, Canada, Norway, and the west coast of Greenland. While researchers estimate there are more than 150,000 beluga whales worldwide, some subpopulations are listed as ‘Endangered,’ like the Cook Inlet in Alaska. Georgia Aquarium’s experts partner with government agencies, conservation groups, and other aquariums to assist in critical research programs that will have a direct impact on wild beluga whale populations.

One such research project is an important metabolic study in conjunction with government and university partners that studies Georgia Aquarium’s resident beluga whales, Qinu, Nunavik, and Maple. This study will help determine how much energy beluga whales expend when they are swimming, resting, and diving. This data will be collected and then used to help make crucial decisions on activities that may negatively impact beluga whale health and their environments.

Beluga whales face many threats in the ocean, including increased noise from shipping and drilling, increased pollution in their environments, contaminated and diminished food supply, and rising ocean temperatures. The future of beluga whales is important not only for their future, but the future of arctic ecosystems.

By continuously monitoring the North American population, accredited zoos and aquariums can make decisions on what’s best for each beluga whale in their social grouping, breeding status, and their age. The goal of these institutions is to sustain the population and ignite an interest and connection for millions of people across the continent. Through these efforts, beluga whales will hopefully continue to thrive in North America and across the globe.

This article was published on: February 15, 2019

Saving Sawfish

The Most Critically Endangered Fish in the World

Sawfish – are they sharks or are they rays? While this animal’s body closely resembles the look of many sharks, the sawfish is in fact a member of the ray family tree. A sawfish’s gills are on its underside, a trait that helps distinguish rays from sharks. Sawfish get their name from their “saws” – their long, flat rostrums edged with pairs of teeth that they use to locate, stun, and kill prey. The sawfish are incredibly unique in appearance, making them a literal and figurative “double-edged sword.” This appearance is part of the reason they are one of the most critically endangered fish in the world.

Their rostrum has approximately 25-34 teeth, which can snag easily in nets or other fishing gear, and many anglers choose to kill them rather than take the time to free them in order to save their gear, adding to their depleting populations. Spotting a sawfish in the wild has become incredibly rare, as these animals are now extinct from half of their former habitats. Aquariums, including Georgia Aquarium, help play an important role in the conservation efforts. One of the only chances most people will ever get to see them or learn about their existence is to visit an aquarium. In 2012, the largest female sawfish at the Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, an Association of Zoos and Aquariums -accredited aquarium in the Bahamas, gave birth to four pups – the first successful sawfish breeding in an aquarium. Little is known about the reproductive behavior and development of sawfish, but scientists now have the ability to learn important details that may help in the recovery of this species. Organizations around the world are working together to learn more about this species, and hope to learn new ways to conserve them.

Georgia Aquarium is home to a sawfish that resides in our Ocean Voyager Built by The Home Depot gallery. “The ability to come to an aquarium and make a connection with an animal people would otherwise never see and marvel at its extraordinary adaptations and learn about its biology – that alone is the big step towards addressing its conservation plight,” Dr. Alistair Dove, vice president of research and conservation at Georgia Aquarium, said. “It’s hard not to be impressed.”

As part of the conservation efforts, Georgia Aquarium is hosting an International Sawfish Conference from November 6-9 for the first time, bringing in academics and conservationists from around the world to discuss and brainstorm new ways to raise awareness and to conserve this amazing fish. Stay tuned to our FacebookInstagram, and Twitter to stay up-to-date on sawfish and to learn how you can help.

This article was published on: October 17, 2017

You Otter Know!

What’s the difference between sea otters and river otters?

There are 13 species of otters in the world, with 12 of those species requiring access to freshwater and only one species residing in the ocean. Many species of river otter inhabit coastal areas and are sometimes confused for sea otters. At Georgia Aquarium, we are home to two species of otter – Asian small-clawed otters and southern sea otters. Keep reading to learn more about what makes each of these species unique.


As their name suggests, sea otters live in the sea! They’re found along coastal areas of the Pacific Ocean ranging from California to Russia, and spend a majority of their time swimming, eating, and sleeping in saltwater. Asian-small clawed otters can be found in India, China, and parts of Southeast Asia. While sea otters are found in the sea, Asian small-clawed otters are found in freshwater wetlands and mangrove swamps. At Georgia Aquarium, guests can see our southern sea otters in our Cold Water Quest gallery and our Asian small-clawed otters in our Southern Company River Scout gallery.


Not all otters are created equal, especially when it comes to their size. Southern sea otters are approximately four feet in length and weigh on average between 45-65 pounds. Asian small-clawed otters are just the opposite. As the smallest species of otter, they range in size from 4.4 to 11 pounds, with a body length of only 16 to 24 inches, which makes them half the length of a southern sea otter!


Since southern sea otters are found in cooler waters, it’s important for their fur to be able to insulate them from the weather. Sea otters must groom regularly to help maintain the insulation. They have the densest fur of all mammals at about 350,000 to 1,000,000 hairs per square inch. Asian small-clawed otters have relatively short hair that consists of two layers – a coarse, waterproof outer coat and a softer, finer layer that is used for warmth.


While a southern sea otter’s fur maintains heat well in the cold water, their metabolism must work quickly to help keep the animal warm. Sea otters must eat 20-25% of their body weight to maintain their body temperature. Asian small-clawed otters spend more of their time on land than in water, which helps keep a stable body temperature. They spend time in the water foraging for mollusks, fish, frogs and crustaceans.

While sea otters and river otters share many differences, they do share a major similarity – the threats they face in the wild. Southern sea otters are considered an endangered species, while Asian small-clawed otters are vulnerable. Both species face threats of pollution, habitat loss, and reduced food sources. Georgia Aquarium, along with other zoos and aquariums, work tirelessly to educate and inspire guests, while providing our otters the best veterinary and nutritional care.

This article was published on: September 24, 2017

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