ATLANTA — Atlantans are walking on the wild side this spring, enjoying opportunities for up-close encounters with dolphins, otters, pandas, Komodo dragons and other exotic creatures great and small.
At the Georgia Aquarium and at Zoo Atlanta, visitors can order up these boutique experiences with the wildlife on exhibit. Most involve feeding snacks to the animals. Some even include an opportunity to touch.
“I like herring!” says Michael Bernstein when he finds out what’s on the menu for morning snacks.
Sorry Mike. The herring is all for Lily, a 9-year-old dolphin who is part of the “AT&T Dolphin Tales” show at the Georgia Aquarium.
“When we opened ‘Dolphin Tales’ we were always asked ‘can we touch them?’” says Michael Hunt, director of animal training, as the Bernstein family makes its way to a secluded tank near the “Dolphin Tales” theater. “The guests wanted to get closer.”
On a recent weekday morning 13-year-old twins Emily and Zack and parents Mike and Melissa Bernstein are getting ready to do just that. After stepping into a tray filled with a disinfectant solution and removing any dangling jewelry, the group steps to the side of a pool to receive instructions from trainers Lloyd Dodge and Ann Hoedt. Keep your hands away from the dolphin’s mouth, they are told, and avoid her eyes, her ears and her genital area.
On the other side of a high wall an audience is assembling for the 11 a.m. show, which involves lights, music and human and dolphin performers. Lily is a stellar athlete, which is made clear by her leaps and her ability to dance backward on her tail. She is also a great actress, nodding and “laughing” on cue.
Emily, kneeling at the edge of the pool, holds out her hands to grasp Lily’s flippers, and the two sway back and forth as if dancing. Lily receives a fishy treat after each trick.
This dolphin encounter comes with a primer on ocean conservation and wise behavior with dolphins in the wild.
Like black bears, dolphins are natural freeloaders, and can become accustomed to begging food off of fishing boats, which puts the animals in danger and sets a bad example for their offspring.
Hunt says people should never feed a dolphin in the wild.
Those in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium eat restaurant-quality fish, he added.
“Do they get scared?” asks Melissa Bernstein.
“We work a long time to build relationships and trust,” says Hoedt, dressed in the Georgia Aquarium’s distinctive black and cobalt wet suit. The waterproof attire came in handy after Lily gave her visitors a good splashing.
“This is a great family activity,” said Melissa. “What’s nice is all four of us enjoyed it.”
When a 550-pound tortoise named Big Al silently extends his tree-trunk legs and rises to his full three-foot height, he seems like an armor-plated scissor lift, with a dinosaur face.
“Wow!” says Meredith Daviston, waiting inches away, with a sweet potato slice on a stick.
“Watch your feet,” says Zoo Atlanta employee David Brothers. “Believe me, if he steps on your foot, you won’t like it.”
Luckily Big Al moves slowly, and waits quite patiently while Daviston’s 5-year-old son Wilson gently strokes his leathery neck.
The Daviston family, including Meredith’s husband, John, and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby, are getting a hands-on look at a 120-year-old reptile, one of three Aldabra tortoises at Zoo Atlanta.
These tortoises are among a handful of animals at the zoo that are part of the “Wild Encounter” program, Prices for the meet-and-greets range from $35 for a one-on-one with a tortoise to $150 for a closer look at one of the zoo’s giant pandas. (The tortoise encounter is the only one that includes touching. Despite their cuddly looks, pandas are not for petting.) Each encounter is guided by an expert on the species, and comes with a wealth of background information.
As he assembles a series of snacks for Al and his fellow tortoise, Tex, Brothers tells of the maritime trade off the east coast of Africa, and how hungry sailors often took Aldabra tortoises on board as a source of nutrition, knowing the animals could stay alive for months without food or water.
While Wilson is comfortable with the behemoth tortoise, his sister clings steadfastly to her mother’s neck.
“Are you scared?” Meredith asks little Ruby, who nods a vigorous yes.
Brothers advises the Davistons they can help the endangered tortoise and other species by avoiding any products made with tortoise-shell, and by thinking twice before buying a pet store turtle.
“Pet stores that claim their turtles are captive-born frequently sell turtles taken from the wild,” he says, “which adversely affects the populations.”
IF YOU GO:
Encounters with sea otters and beluga whales and opportunities to swim and dive with the whale sharks are also available. Aquarium hours: 10-5 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 9-6 p.m. Saturday. Admission to the aquarium: $24.95-$29.95.
The Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. NW, Atlanta, 404-581-4000, www.georgiaaquarium.org/
Prices range from $35 to $150 per participant, and do not include admission to the zoo. Zoo admission, $16.99-$21.99; zoo hours: 9:30-5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Zoo Atlanta, 800 Cherokee Avenue, Atlanta, 404-624-5600, www.zooatlanta.org/