Note: This is one of three “amazing builds” highlighted in the September 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.
If you’re ever going to come face-to-face with a shark, Georgia Aquarium’s “Predators of the Deep” gallery is a great place to do it.
One of the largest shark exhibits in North America, the 1.2-million-gallon tank houses several varieties of shark, viewable both from the outside and, if you’re a real adventurer, via a cage that’s lowered into the water and moved around the tank.
Birmingham-based Brasfield & Gorrie was general contractor for the $100 million expansion, which also included new entrances and exits, office spaces, retail spaces and a loading dock.
The centerpiece, though, is the shark tank, which after completion last fall has become a popular attraction at the aquarium.
“It’s super-interesting, and sometimes you’ve got to dig your nose out of the plans and the specs to appreciate what you’re doing,” says Mark Crump, operations manager for Brasfield & Gorrie.
Crump, based at Brasfield & Gorrie’s Atlanta office, is no stranger to work at the aquarium. He wasn’t there when his company built the original aquarium that opened in 2005, but he worked on the dolphin expansion that opened in 2010 and the sea lion exhibit that opened in 2015.
“People who only see me periodically assume I’m always at the aquarium, which is not quite true,” Crump says. “They also assume I know more about marine life than I do, that I studied marine biology in college, and that’s completely false. I’m very much a construction guy who just so happened to find myself in the aquarium world.”
Aquarium construction demands its own set of rules
“You have to have the base understanding, of course, in typical commercial construction before you even start,” Crump says. “You sort of build off of that to meet the needs of a unique, high-tech Georgia Aquarium.”
First and foremost are the life support systems — the saltwater pipes and filtration that keep the animals alive and well.
“In any building you’re in other than an aquarium, there’s not nearly 10 million gallons of saltwater running through and getting filtered and returned to exhibits,” Crump says. “It’s a huge part of the piping, and that’s a completely different type of construction.”
That saltwater also means selecting materials that don’t corrode easily, including fiberglass-reinforced plastic instead of steel and a type of concrete that helps protect the rebar.
The architect and contractor also must beware of where columns are placed and use animal-friendly building practices (for instance, the nuts and bolts are rounded-top acorn nuts, so it’s not a projection on which an animal can impale itself).
And then there are the panels — the only thing protecting patrons from the water and deep-sea creatures. “You’re looking through pieces of transparent acrylic, 5-10 inches thickness depending on the panel,” Crump says. “The shark exhibit has what I understand is a one-of-a-kind half-dome panel, half of a domed room underneath the water. It’s very complex. That panel took a long, long time to make.”
Crump discovered something interesting during construction of the shark tank.
“I am afraid of sharks,” he says with a laugh. “Having been in close proximity of them for a while, I’m not interested in getting that close to the top of the tank.”
And while he knows the exhibit is safe, he “politely deferred” an opportunity to jump in a cage and be fully immersed in the tank and exhibit. He’ll leave that to the aquarium’s visitors.
“I have a strong and healthy fear of sharks,” he says.