BY LESLIE POYTHRESS || PHOTO TNAQUA.ORG
Clusters of leafy seadragons float aimlessly in the water. Two ominous king snakes, coiled together, bask in the light. A wood duck, being chased by a feisty turtle, scuttles off to safety. Hammerhead sharks speed by in search of their next meal. Freshwater fish encircle an abandoned boat looking for shelter from their predators. A pancake turtle finds refuge from the heat under a boulder.
A day in the jungles of Africa or the rivers of the world? No, just a glimpse into some of the thousands of fascinating creatures to be found at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. This $45 million attraction opened in 1992, and has become one of the most visited attractions in the United States. Located in a four-story building on the banks of the Tennessee River, the 130,000 square feet, non-profit aquarium offers something for the entire family.
I recently helped chaperone over 200 children from Gray Elementary School in Jones County during their trip to the aquarium. The students, this year’s good conduct winners, were truly impressed by the over 9,000 animals that swim, fly, and crawl in natural habitats. I have been to the aquarium with my family several times, but I have to admit that seeing the exhibits through the eyes of school children— some of which had never left middle Georgia— gave me a true appreciation for the educational mission of the attraction.
Each habitat area features interactive displays and information panels full of fascinating facts about various animal species. Throughout the aquarium, state of the art touch- screen computer programs, hands on science stations, and video segments provide fun ways of learning about aquatic life. When one demonstration showed a male seahorse having babies, a fifth grader exclaimed, “Wow! That’s the coolest thing!” The enthusiasm of the children as they soaked everything in was contagious.
The aquarium provides glimpses into the lives of plants and animals in the course of a journey beginning with the Tennessee River’s source in the Appalachians, through its midstream, on to the Mississippi Delta, and finally to various rivers of the world. My favorite exhibit, “Seahorses: Beyond Imagination,” includes 500 seahorses, sea dragons, pipe fish, starfish, and crustaceans. We were awed by the leafy, weedy sea dragons whose leaf-like appendages made them resemble mythical creatures floating in the water. The students got a close-up look at several seahorse species when they were able to crawl underneath an aquarium, and pop up right in the middle of the graceful creatures.
Revolving doors (a high point of the trip for several students) lead visitors to unexplored ecosystems. The Zaire River collection includes river puffers and tilapia, and the New Guinea Fly River exhibit contains colorful rainbow fish that crowd the glass to view their spectators. The Nickajack Lake display holds 145,000 gallons of water. The Nickajack is actually not a lake, but part of the Tennessee River just outside of the aquarium. Its diverse collection of fish includes three 80-pound catfish that are usually seen prowling the tank’s deepest waters.
The Delta Country attraction consists of four open-air tanks that house an assortment of birds, reptiles, and fish, as well as an elaborate collection of trees, vines, and boulders. The resulting habitat is impressive. As we watched, a 6-foot long male American alligator, who appeared to be suspended in the water, quickly snapped up an unsuspecting mosquito fish with his strong jaws! The audible gasps from the children around me were priceless as they witnessed a food chain in action. Together, we searched for the creature that had shed a 4-foot snakeskin and left it perched on a stump. Suddenly, as two eyes peered from behind a rock, a little girl squealed with either delight or fear as she spotted the pine snake.
Tennessee Aquarium houses one of the largest freshwater turtle collections in the world, with over 20 types of live turtles, and artifacts from an additional 20 species. In “Turtles: Nature’s Living Sculptures—Architecture in Bone,” a knowledgeable staff member introduced myself and several children to a one-year-old alligator snapping turtle. We touched its large, leathery fin, and discovered how to guess the age of a turtle— you count the rings on the perimeter of its shell. A turtle enthusiast, I was particularly awed by the African pancake turtle— which was just as flat as its name implies— as he searched for shelter in his habitat.
After leaving the aquarium, we traveled across the street to the 400-seat IMAX 3D theater. The enormous screen, together with the three-dimensional technology, brought the Titanic to life as we viewed the fascinating movie Ghosts of the Abyss. Two other shows, Ocean Wonderland and Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, were also offered on the day of our visit.
The Tennessee Aquarium does an excellent job portraying true aquatic ecosystems— not just ordinary fish tanks. Together with the IMAX theater, this attraction is a valuable educational experience, and will provide fun for your entire family. I would encourage every family to make the short drive to Chattanooga, and discover the delights of the Tennessee Aquarium. #
If You Go:
Tennessee Aquarium: http://www.tnaqua.org
The City of Chattanooga’s website: http://www.chattanooga.gov/
Chattanooga Convention and Visitor’s Bureau: http://www.chattanoogafun.com/