Experience This: The Tennessee Aquarium

At Home Memphis & Mid South Magazine, February 2016

Text by Connor Bran

Nestled in the heart of Chattanooga lies an aquatic wonderland waiting to be explored.

Since 1992, the Tennessee Aquarium has attracted millions of visitors from around the world to discover all of the wonder and awe nature has to offer.

Known not only for its impeccable staff and architectural charm, the facility is internationally renowned as the largest freshwater aquarium in the world, and for being home to a richly diverse living collection of the world’s most fascinating animals.

Upon entering the aquarium grounds, visitors begin their journey just as a raindrop would. The path that visitors take throughout two buildings — River Journey and Ocean Journey — follows the actual ecological movement of freshwater from the top of a mountain to form streams, swamps, lakes and rivers all the way to the sea, meeting a variety of animals along the way.

Visitors start their visit atop River Journey in the Appalachian Cove Forest exhibit, a stunningly realistic reproduction of the Tennessee River water source. Met immediately with the surroundings of a real forest, guests hear birds chirping from thick treetops, see cascading waterfalls, and encounter the famously whimsical river otters, whose playful antics are sure to amuse.

After brushing shoulders with alligators, ducks and schools of fish, visitors flow into the second building, Ocean Journey.

The adventure continues through tropical rainforests filled with lush plant life and vivid color provided by radiant macaws and bright butterflies. Macaroni and Gentoo, the aquarium’s resident penguins, waddle, dive and swim every which way in their cool blue pool. Further along in their Ocean Journey, visitors get up close and personal with creatures that live in deep ocean waters such as dreamlike jellyfish and fierce sharks.

A trip through the facility is an enriching and exciting experience meeting some of the most popular and friendly faces of the animal kingdom. Those eager to continue exploring find the journey doesn’t stop when they exit the building, though. The aquarium offers two off-site activities for visitors who yearn to extend their journey into the immensely diverse ecology of the Southeast.

The aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer, a top-of-the-line, high-tech vessel, transports passengers swiftly and smoothly downstream from the Chattanooga Pier into the scenic Tennessee River Gorge daily. From its observation deck visitors view incomparable vistas of the gorgeous east Tennessee landscape as an aquarium naturalist brings local history to life, pointing out native wildlife along the way.

In addition to the River Gorge Explorer, visitors have the option of kicking back and watching a movie in the Tennessee Aquarium’s IMAX 3D Theater. The aquarium proudly re-opened their IMAX Theater early this month after renovating its projection system. The new IMAX Laser system features two 4K projectors that will fill Chattanooga’s largest screen with brighter, bolder and more realistic imagery. Along with the new projection system, other upgrades include a new audio system that creates a pinpoint accurate sound environment that draws visitors in for an immersive, one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

As the aquarium hopes to promote an authentic wonder about and appreciation of aquatic ecologies, it also focuses on conserving ecological health and promoting education.

Just a few miles upriver from its main campus, the Tennessee Aquarium is constructing a 14,000-square-foot riverfront facility to serve as a permanent home for the Tennessee Aquarium Freshwater Conservation Institute (TNACI).The facility, the only freshwater research center in the Southeast, will bring TNACI’s research work to the national stage, solidifying Chattanooga as a reputable conservation capital. With its nonprofit business model, the Tennessee Aquarium has been found by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sustainable Business and Development to be a positive player in the economic, educational and environmental future for Chattanooga.

About 700,000 visitors annually flock to the Tennessee Aquarium to become closer with and learn more about the aquatic wildlife around them. With a variety of exhibits, activities, visitor programs and conservation initiatives, it is certain that the Tennessee Aquarium is all about leaving a meaningful impact in the community.