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story.lead_photo.caption A sea otter is among the interesting cast of animal characters on the Animal Planet series The Aquarium, a spinoff of The Zoo, a series focused on the Bronx Zoo in New York.

ATLANTA -- The Georgia Aquarium is now part of the Animal Planet family courtesy of a new documentary series called The Aquarium. It debuted May 19.

The 10-episode series showcases interesting animal stories through the eyes of dedicated aquarium trainers, revealing how complex and challenging it can be to run an operation of this scope and size.

In the debut episode, The Aquarium features Tank, a 30-year-old green sea turtle who gets new space to wander at the aquarium's installation Ocean Voyager; a blue-spotted ribbontail stingray who has babies; and rehabilitated African penguins released into the wild in South Africa.

The show will also chronicle the aquarium's efforts to grow new coral to replace dying coral reefs off the coast of Florida.

Erin Wanner, senior vice president for production for Animal Planet, said The Aquarium is a spin off of its successful show The Zoo focused on the Bronx Zoo in New York and in its fourth season.

"Sometimes zoos get a bad rap," Wanner said. "We wanted to open the curtain at the Bronx Zoo. They were brave enough to let us in. The backstage pass element for our viewers is what is making them so passionately attached to these types of shows."

So it became an easy decision for Animal Planet to do the same with an aquarium. And the first one it targeted was the Georgia Aquarium since it's the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere.

Aquarium spokesman Jessica Fontana said familiarity with The Zoo made it easier for them to embrace Animal Planet on this project. Shooting began in November and continues through June.

She hopes the show not only inspires viewers to get more involved with conservation efforts but also inspires young people to become trainers and keepers at aquariums and zoos.

"I wish I had a show like this when I was a kid," Fontana said.

The aquarium is doing well, she said, drawing 2.5 million visitors a year and she is well aware of the marketing value of such a show on future attendance.

"The story lines focus so heavily on individual animals, I expect people will come to the aquarium to connect and check on them."

While dolphins and penguins often get the most attention at aquariums, The Aquarium also highlights animals that don't get as much love as the stingray babies in the first episode.

"The keeper talks about how cute they are," Wanner said. "I wouldn't necessarily have thought that of baby rays. I now love them. You see them in a different light."

The Georgia Aquarium is not without its critics. In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animal welfare group, released a report in 2016 criticizing its specific treatment of whales and dolphins and is not a fan of aquariums in general.

A spokesman for the group provided this statement: "The Georgia Aquarium is a dying pool that plumbs the depths in exploitation of intelligent and sensitive animals. Dolphins, whales and other wild animals suffer and die in captivity and it is never ethical to keep them in aquariums. We are shocked that Animal Planet has partnered with the Georgia Aquarium since it has a particularly high death toll."

In 2016, the aquarium downplayed the group's credibility, noting that "this organization and its list are by no means credible or scientific, no empirical data is mentioned and scientific experts provided no justification for their reasoning."

Animal Planet's Wanner said many animal species are being threatened by extinction and the best zoos and aquariums provide plenty of support to help return species to the wild. A new forthcoming series about the San Diego Zoo, she said, highlights the zoo's efforts to repopulate the endangered California condor.

While the ramifications of climate change can be quite depressing, Wanner said Animal Planet wants to show "zoos and aquariums are places of hope for the future. They are making positive change."

The Aquarium airs at 7 p.m. Sundays on Animal Planet.

Weekend on 05/30/2019

Print Headline: Animal Planet goes in depth at Georgia Aquarium

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