In building the Georgia Aquarium, Bernie Marcus’ goal was to give people the chance to view aquatic animals they might never otherwise see. That mission will continue with the addition of a shark gallery as part of the aquarium’s 2020 expansion.

The saltwater gallery is scheduled to open in the late fall of 2020 and will feature several shark species.

As explained at an announcement ceremony Tuesday, March 20, the exhibit is one of the 12-year-old aquarium’s largest expansions and will draw inspiration from aquariums across the world. The gallery will feature floor-to-ceiling windows, which will allow visitors to get up close and personal with the sharks.

The exact dimensions of the tank and the species it will contain are still being discussed.

The 2020 expansion also will include a covered pedestrian parkway for visitors as they make their way to a reconstructed plaza.

The aquarium previously expanded with the opening of the SunTrust sea lion gallery in 2016, along with a renovation of the AT&T dolphin exhibit, which had opened in 2011.

“One of the things we have to do is keep the aquarium fresh,” Leven said. “We have to add new exhibits and new ways for people to come back.”

The Georgia Aquarium will get a new entrance and pedestrian walkway by 2020. (Georgia Aquarium rendering)

As part of the latest renovations, which will add tens of thousands of square feet to the nation’s largest aquarium, a temporary entrance will open in September. Construction will begin in April.

Since its opening, the aquarium has funded more than 100 research projects, aquarium President and Chief Operating Officer Joe Handy said.

For instance, the organization has helped create two marine protected areas in Mexico and the South Atlantic, said Alistar Dove, the vice president of research and conservation, and has published scientific papers on the biology of whale sharks to help preserve the species.

One of the aquarium’s goals is to serve as sharks’ spokesman because they are often misunderstood, Georgia Aquarium Chairman and CEO Mike Leven said. “People are fascinated with sharks. … When they see one up close, they look violent, but they are really gentle creatures.”

Georgia Aquarium Chairman and CEO Mike Leven points out species of fish to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms as aquarium President and COO Joe Handy looks on. (Photo by Sarah Moosazadeh)

New Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Atlanta Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen attended the unveiling of the expansion plans. The ceremony was held the day after the state Senate gave final approval to almost $5.5 million in tax exemptions and refunds to help finance the $100 million expansion.

Cagle expressed appreciation for Bernie Marcus as a great visionary and for the aquarium’s accomplishments in conservation and education, which would not be possible without partnerships with universities such as Emory, the Georgia and Georgia State. The Republican gubernatorial candidate added that the aquarium’s economic benefits include the generation of more than $8 million in state and local taxes.

Over 1 million students have visited the aquarium through educational programs.

Bottoms said the expansion is a reminder of how downtown Atlanta continues to grow. She said the aquarium’s impact on the city has been incomparable.

Bottoms said the aquarium has supported 32,000 jobs, produced $6 billion worth of downtown projects and assisted 29,000 military personnel through a veterans immersion program.

“Many of the people who will come to the aquarium will never see these animals up close. They may seem them in the movies or on the Internet, but it’s not the same,” Leven said. “We have a capability to do so, and it’s all because of Bernie and Billi’s gift to the city.”