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2 new whale sharks arrive at Georgia Aquarium

ATLANTA — Two new whale sharks arrived at the world’s largest aquarium Friday.
    Both whale sharks — the world’s largest fish — arrived at the Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta after 6 a.m., less than 30 minutes apart.
    The pair had been flown 8,000 miles from Taipei, Taiwan by way of Anchorage, Alaska. They’ll join the aquarium’s three current whale sharks — the only ones on display outside of Asia — giving the 2-year-old aquarium the largest number of the giant fish on display anywhere.
    ‘‘We’re the only people in the world that can claim three times,’’ aquarium director Jeff Swanagan said, referring to the aquarium’s two previous transcontinental whale shark flights. ‘‘Each time we learn more and more.’’
    The two young males were given Asian names in honor of their Taiwanese origins.
    One is Taroko, named after Taroko Gorge, a national park in Taiwan. The other is Yushan, which means ‘‘jade mountain,’’ and is named after a mountain in Taiwan.
    The sharks were flown from Taiwan on a cargo plane in 20-foot-long fiberglass tanks fitted with oxygen machines and other equipment to keep the water suitable for them.
    They arrived at about 3:30 a.m. in Atlanta, where their tanks were transferred to two flatbed trucks and driven to the aquarium surrounded by an escort of Atlanta police cars with their blue lights flashing.
    Once there, they remained in their tanks in a cargo bay as veterinarians measured them, took blood samples and did other checks.
    Then they were hoisted in a canvas harness and lowered into their new home — as Norton and two females, Alice and Trixie, circled nearby, seemingly curious about the new arrivals.
    It’s difficult to pinpoint the age of whale sharks, but at least one of the new arrivals is believed to be the smallest the aquarium has acquired. They are believed to be the aquarium’s youngest whale sharks yet, said Ray Davis, vice president of zoological operations at the aquarium.
    Their arrival comes just over four months after Ralph, a whale shark who became one of the aquarium’s stars after it opened in 2005, died in January.
    Aquarium officials said stomach problems that led to an inflammation of a membrane in the shark’s abdomen caused his death.
    The death led some animal rights groups to question a chemical used in the tank to treat parasites, which could have curbed the sharks’ appetite and led to force-feeding.
    Aquarium officials agree that the tank’s treatment routine — which has since been changed — likely contributed to a loss of appetite in Ralph and Norton, another male that has been on display since the aquarium opened.
    But they say it’s not clear that it had anything to do with the peritonitis they say led to his death.
    Swanagan and other scientists at the aquarium say they’re convinced the Ocean Explorer exhibit is a safe and healthy one for the sharks.
    ‘‘I’ve gotten very comfortable with our science,’’ said Swanagan.
    They also say the 6 million gallon tank should provide plenty of room for five of the massive sharks — which can grow to be up to 40 feet long.
    In addition to the whale sharks, the aquarium’s 8 million gallons of tanks feature more than 100,000 fish, beluga whales and other rare animals.
    ———
    On the Net:
    Georgia Aquarium: www.georgiaaquarium.org

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