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David Kimmel, COO Georgia Aquarium on Exceeding Expectations

As President and Chief Operating Officer of Georgia Aquarium, David Kimmel is responsible for overseeing all operations at the world’s largest aquarium. He has been integral  to the aquarium’s  history and its continuing development,   having joined benefactor Bernie Marcus’ team three years before the aquarium opened in 2005 and leading the company that designed, created, built and staffed it.

With the International Aquarium Congress (IAC) 2012 just a week away, Charles Read asked David about life at Georgia aquarium, his own background and the aquarium’s plans for the future.

georgia aquarium at night

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Your background is in construction, engineering and program management. How did your involvement with Georgia Aquarium begin?

In 2002, Bernie (The Aquarium’s benefactor, chairman of the board and CEO, Bernie Marcus) hired the firm I was with at the time, Heery, to lead the Aquarium development efforts. With the grandeur of the project and as head of the department at Heery, I became the program manger for this project of a lifetime. This is how my ongoing relationship with the Aquarium and Bernie began.

What lessons from your time in industry have you brought and have helped inform your role with the aquarium?

In addition to the day to day operations of running the world’s largest aquarium, Georgia Aquarium is really about the people who work here. My previous industry experience dealt with getting to rally around a specific goal. The Aquarium is no different. The strength of the Aquarium is using the strengths of the people who work or volunteer here. It’s about the people.

kids with gropuper at georgia aquarium

Please tell us about the conservation partnerships the aquarium has and of notable successes.

Georgia Aquarium is a leading facility for aquatic animal conservation and research. The Aquarium conducts research to improve husbandry methods, develop innovative and exciting new exhibits, contribute to the understanding of the underwater world and apply new discoveries to the conservation of aquatic life. By combining field research with the study of on-site animals in a controlled environment, the Aquarium is contributing to the advancement of human knowledge in the area of animal science.

Georgia Aquarium has been carrying out research on whale sharks since 2003 with a number of partners including the Mexican government, Mote Marine Laboratory, University of South Florida, Georgia State University, Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2009, the Aquarium became official partners in Project Domino, a consortium led by the Mexican department of protected areas (CONANP) that studies, monitors and conserves whale sharks in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. Based in part on the data produced by this collaboration, in June 2009 the Mexican Government declared the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve off the northern tip of the Yucatan. This new protected area is one of the first in the world to specifically target the conservation of whale sharks.

Georgia Aquarium has also partnered with non-profit wildlife rehabilitation group SANCCOB to study, for the first time anywhere, the health of free-ranging beluga white wahle georgia aquarium david kimmel presidentAfrican penguins, like those in the Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest gallery. Sampling will take place off the coast of Namibia on the western side of South Africa.

These are just a couple of examples of the research and conservation efforts Georgia Aquarium is involved in.

What notable captive breeding initiatives is the aquarium involved in?

The term we use with regard to the animal we care for is “in human care.”  Perhaps the most notable of our initiatives currently is our plan to import 18 beluga whales into the United States from Northern Russia, where the animals were collected from the Sea of Okhotsk by a group of Russian scientists.  This group has been collecting a number of animals annually for research and disposition to marine parks throughout the world.  The Aquarium commissioned a five-year research study to ensure that this collection was done in a sustainable manner that would not harm the native population in any way.  The results were validated by the IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.  We hope to obtain our permit to import the animals in the fall of 2012.  The 18 animals will be managed along with our current 34 in human care in North America; and will be placed according to each animal’s needs and the likelihood of successful breeding.  Georgia Aquarium has opted to pursue this groundbreaking program in order to ensure we are doing all we can to sustain our population in human care in North America for education, study and research – all of which helps us better help wild populations. 

With which other aquariums does Georgia work closely?

Based on our collection and the management of our collection we find georgia aquarium entranceourselves working more closely with Monterey Bay Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, New York Aquarium, National Aquarium, the Sea World parks and the Alaska Sea Life Center.

How would you describe your role and what are its biggest challenges?

Being President of Georgia Aquarium is a dream job. I have the opportunity to not only lead the world’s largest aquarium, but I was able to be a part of this amazing facility from the very beginning.  I truly understand the gift of Georgia Aquarium and what the Aquarium’s purpose is. I want to take this gift and pay it forward to the next generation. The biggest challenge is balancing all the needs with the resources that are available. The various opportunities that we have to make a difference not only to our guests but to research and conservation are only limited by money.

Remarkably, the aquarium welcomed its 1 millionth guest on March 1, 2006, only ninety-eight days after opening. How has attendance been since then?

albino alligator at georgia aquarium

What’s most remarkable is that as we near the seven-year mark since opening, more than 16 million guests have visited the Aquarium.  It’s a milestone we didn’t really envision early on, because we didn’t have a benchmark for what kind of interest the “world’s largest aquarium” would generate in terms of visits.  Notably, the launch of some major programs and expansions has helped our attendance.  The launch of our Swim/Dive program in 2007, which was accompanied by extensive coverage on NBC’s Today Show, drove incredible interest and attendance.  And the grand opening of our newest and largest expansion, our dolphin habitat, theater and live show, drove additional spikes in attendance and news coverage. 

You have said, “We recognize that Georgia Aquarium is a community asset, and with the economy still struggling, it is important that we be able to offer more to our visitors”. How has the “Total ticket” (which gives visitors admission to all six permanent galleries plus extra show and exhibits, giving a 40% overall discount on the previous arrangement) been received by aquarium visitors?

Aquarium guests love our Total Ticket, primarily because of the value and convenience it provides.   What we’ve seen coral reef georgia aquariumthis year is that our attendance is relatively consistent with previous years, so we feel that this change is a real positive, because that hasn’t been the norm in the zoo and aquarium community.  The real gain is in revenues – revenues which help us to maintain our living collection, facilities and invest in conservation and research initiatives.  Revenues are up significantly over previous years, so our per-cap is much higher than at any other time in our history.  Again, this is significant for us because as a not-for-profit, the additional revenue means we can not only continue to provide an experience to our guest that is unparalleled, but can achieve other important goals on behalf of the animals we serve much sooner. 

Has the aquarium fulfilled expectations so far both for you personally and the community?

No. The Aquarium has far exceeded any expectations. If one looks at is from purely a visitation standpoint, it exceeds. If one looks at it from the education aspect, it exceeds. If one looks at the veterinary care our animals receive, it exceeds. If one looks at our research and conservation efforts, it exceeds. However, these accomplishments are not the story of Georgia Aquarium. The story is the impact on our community and the economic impact the Aquarium has done for downtown Atlanta. This is how Georgia Aquarium has fulfilled and exceeded all expectations. In the years ahead, we are raising the bar higher to push ourselves to the next level.ocean voyager georgia aquarium david kimmel

Georgia is known for its whale sharks, being the only aquarium outside Asia to house them. It also has Belugas and Manta Rays. Is this a core strategy, to house animals rarely seen in aquaria and if so are there any specific species on your wish list?

It is absolutely a core strategy, even a goal, to house animals rarely seen in other Aquariums. We strive to make Georgia Aquarium unique and cutting edge. Yes we have specific species we are looking into to enhance our collection, but as our benefactor says, “I’ll sell you the hammer when it is on the shelf.” Keep an eye on the Aquarium to find out about our future plans.

The aquarium’s travelling exhibit, Frogs – A Chorus of Colors, is currently running.  How important is this type of show to the aquarium?

Yes, our newest exhibition Frogs- A Chorus of Colors opened to the public on January 12 of this year. We are very excited that Georgia Aquarium has partnered to host this exhibition, devoted to displaying and uncovering mysteries of these fascinating creatures. Frogs are indicator species that serve as frogs chorus colors georgia aquariumsentinels for overall environmental health. With the worldwide population of frogs declining at unprecedented rates, it is vital that we introduce our guests to some of the more unique members of the frog family while building awareness of the crisis that threatens this species existence.
Traveling exhibits are a way to introduce fresh and new content to our guests in hopes that each visit to the Aquarium brings something new and captivating.  Exhibitions like these deliver a fresh experience without an investment that would be required of a new gallery or permanent exhibit. 

What can you tell us about new exhibits or developments?dolphin tales georgia aquarium

In 2011, we launched our largest expansion to date – AT&T Dolphin Tales. Dedicated to inspiring memorable connections between humans and dolphins, AT&T Dolphin Tales strives to create a greater understanding of these magnificent animals and to develop a lasting legacy for the conservation of dolphins and other marine mammals.  The new gallery and show is an important addition and expansion of Georgia Aquarium’s focus on the care of marine mammals. This commitment began with the opening of the Aquarium in 2005 when the beluga and sea otter exhibits were first featured.  AT&T Dolphin Tales represents nothing less than the next level of engaging the public to care about these animals

The 84, 000-square-foot AT&T Dolphin Tales exhibit uses entertainment to educate audiences with dynamic performances by a live actor, trainers and charismatic animals and effects utilizing light, water, video, sound and dramatic costuming, all set to the storyline of a professionally orchestrated soundtrack. (See: PGAV Destinations Project Wins Atlanta Downtown Design Excellence AwardElectrosonic Dives Into AT&T Dolphin Tales)

What are other significant revenue streams?

We offer an exciting and intriguing environment for special events, weddings, conferences and meetings. Our Oceans Ballroom (below) boasts 16, 400 square-feet of meeting and event space with two incredible viewing windows offering glimpses into the Ocean Voyager and Cold Water Quest gaballroom event georgia aquarium david kimmel presidentlleries. Majestic beluga whales and gigantic whale sharks grace guests during their reception or corporate meeting. The Aquarium’s exclusive catering partner, Wolfgang Puck Catering, is known for its extraordinary for cuisine and event planning.  The private event spaces were incorporated into our original planning for the building, and as such are integrated beautifully and seamlessly into our facility.  The catering facilities are world-class.  Event revenue constitutes roughly 10% – 12% of our overall revenues.

You recently launched a new TV series, “Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin.”  What is the importance of the show to the Aquarium ?

I can’t overstate the importance we place on our TV series, Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin (below) from Georgia Aquarium.  We are partners with the production company, Litton Entertainment, on the show, which constitutes one of six weekly educational series offered on more than 220 ABC-TV affiliates across the United States.  Before Ocean Mysteries, the Aquarium didn’t have a national platform for telling our story to a broad audience; so as a result of the show’s success – it is the #3 highest-rated new syndicated show in U.S. television – we are now able to educate a very broad audience about the fine work our team does for animals here at the Aquarium and in conjunction with our partners in the field.  We’re the first Aquarium to host a TV show with an educational theme and a nationwide footprint, so naturally we’ve very proud of both this achievement and the fact that it’s been so warmly received by the viewing public.  jeff corwin ocean mysteries georgia aquarium

The Aquarium has been well received, how do you plan to keep the experience fresh and exciting for the guest in the next 5, 10, 20 years?

The Aquarium’s benefactor, chairman of the board and CEO, Bernie Marcus, believes we should never stand still. Instead we should be visionaries and think ahead in increments of five years, ten years, fifteen years, and we are planning for it right now. We want our visitors to come back over and over again and to be re-inspired during each visit.  As a result of this early vision, we’re now planning for the next five, ten, twenty years.  Our master plan will help drive the direction to ensure that we sustain our position as the world’s most engaging Aquarium, and the projects, expansions, upgrades and new exhibits we introduce will be a direct result of that. 

To what degree is social media having an impact on the engagement you have with the aquarium’s visitors? Any notable new initiatives?

Social media has a tremendous impact on the engagement we have with the aquarium’s visitors. For us, it’s a great tool to use to communicate with our guests about their experience at Georgia Aquarium. By its very social media icons and toolsdefinition, social media is a dialogue with our constituents, and as a result, we get to find out what it is about Georgia Aquarium they love, and we get to hear it in their own words. It also helps us improve and continue to adhere to our mission of educating, entertaining and engaging our guests.  One of our biggest new initiatives is the launch of the Georgia Aquarium blog. Since March, 2012 our staff has been working as a cohesive team to report on research and conservation topics, breaking news at the aquarium, and behind-the-scenes look at some of our animals both at Georgia Aquarium and Marineland Dolphin Adventure. This is yet another outlet we are using to distribute information and engage with our fans in the online community. 

Which other aquariums do you admire?

I admire Monterey Bay Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium and Sea World operations. Georgia Aquarium has a deeper connection with these facilities due to joint projects that we collaborate on. There are many wonderful aquariums around the world. Every aquarium has a uniqueness I admire. Monterey Bay Aquarium beginnings are extremely similar to the way we started – with a man’s dream. I admire the Sea World organizations for their dedication in research and conservation. I believe all AZA accredited facilities can learn from each other.

giant pacific octopus at georgia aquarium

What do you think are the key issues/challenges facing public aquaria today?

I believe staying current with a collection that is always changing and staying current with technology are the greatest challenges facing public aquariums. People learn differently with new technology available today. The ability to learn and discover is enormous. We are no longer the whole story. We are merely the early chapters of the book of possibilities.

Where should the fish for display marine aquaria exhibits come from? With the vast majority collected from reef environments, how can public aquaria tell the stories of marine conservation whilst relying on wild-caught specimens for display?

Speaking for Georgia Aquarium, we believe that our aquarium allows guests the opportunity to view the world’s oceans, and therefore the animals that we have should represent a plethora of species from around the world. The way an aquarium collects and displays is extremely important because it tells the story of marine conservation. We believe that when one peruses collection in a responsible, scientific way and places the welfare and care of the animals first is the story that public aquaria should be telling. 

wolf eel at georgia aquarium

There is growing evidence that people are suffering from "environmental despair" regarding the state of the planet. The Monterey Bay Aquarium recently created a positive and hopeful exhibit about climate change. Whilst it is incumbent upon museums and aquariums to educate, how is this best done?

We agree with how the Monterey Bay Aquarium is enlightening the public on this issue. We all have a responsibility to educate our guests on climate change and how it impacts the food supply and habitats of animals. It is not only important to create public awareness but also to continue research so that these animals will always be here for future generations to enjoy.

With the various challenges facing the marine and aquatic environment, from coral bleaching to climate change and pollution, what work and developments give you cause for optimism?

When I look into the faces of children who visit the Aquarium, their pure enthusiasm and joy give me hope. Hope that the exposure and education they receive at our facility will inspire them to become the next generation of david kimmel georgia aquarium manta rayscientists, aquarists, biologist or supporters who protect our environmental resources.

Are you going to the 2012 IAC in Cape Town this September?

Unfortunately I am not able to attend the 2012 IAC in Cape Town. However, the Aquarium’s chief zoological officer and senior vice president William Hurley will be attending.

Is there any one animal in the aquarium with which you feel a particular affinity?

My favorite animal is the manta ray. I thoroughly enjoy watching them glide through our Ocean Voyager exhibit. For my wife, it is the beluga whale. She can sit and watch them for hours. That is the great thing about Georgia Aquarium. Between the various galleries and exhibits, everybody has a favorite that they can find here.


Images: kind courtesy Georgia Aquarium.


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