Day-Tripping: Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium

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by Steve Raimo and Joshua Gibson

Snugly nestled along the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga is a world-class aquarium.  I knew this, had heard about it, and have always wanted to go see it. But, I hadn’t had the chance until recently.  Now I know what I’ve been missing.

My partner had to make a business trip to Atlanta, and came up with an inspired idea.  Why didn’t I meet him in Chattanooga after he was finished, and we could spend the day at the aquarium?  It seemed like a wonderful idea, so I jumped at the opportunity.   A couple of phone calls put us in touch with Thom Benson, PR director for the Tennessee Aquarium.  Thom was very accommodating, and proposed an itinerary for the day we were there.

 So, once we arrived at the aquarium we met up with Thom and were treated to an insider’s tour of the entire facility.  We started at the penguin exhibit, a noted favorite among those who go.  Thom described the penguins: species and their natural locations, what they eat (smelt and krill), molting and mating. Then he described the exhibit itself: water temp (43-45 degrees), amount of time the lights are on (simulating an Antarctic summer), and the “magic rocks” (introduction of the rocks into the exhibit that stimulated nesting and mating behaviors).  The pride in his voice was unmistakable. It was clear he loved the exhibit, and the aquarium as a whole. 

After the penguins, it was time for the “backstage” portion of our tour.  On May 15th, the Tennessee Aquarium opens its newest exhibit.  Jellies:  Living Art is presented in conjunction with the Hunter Museum and fuses glass art with various jellyfish exhibits.  We spent some time with Thom in the soon to be opened exhibit and had the pleasure of learning about the different species of Jellies in the different exhibits, as well as the artists represented and some of their pieces.  The pieces will be on loan from the Hunter Museum, and will be switched out after a certain length of time. 

The exhibit is designed to be tranquil and reflective, and that idea is carried out in a stunning mirrored hall.  A wall of beautiful jellyfish on one side then reflected by the mirrors on the other; the result is a breathtaking work of art in its own right.  The rest of the exhibit will be fantastic as well; a spectacle definitely worth going to see.  Four artists will have works represented, all of which are inspired by or representative of the Jellyfish:  Dale Chihuly, whose works on display are from the “Macchia” series, a collection of unusually shaped bowls; Stephen Rolfe Powell, who uses the help of gravity to form vessels with long necks and rounded bottoms; Cork Marcheschi, who has pieces that either glow or light up; and Thomas Spake, a native of Chattanooga who still lives and works in the area. 

After the tour, we had just enough time to stroll down to the city pier and climb aboard the River Gorge Explorer.  The River Gorge Explorer is a 69-foot catamaran that “explores” the gorge between the city pier and the Nickajac Reservoir twenty-six miles downstream.  Well, the tour goes fifteen miles downstream, not quite to the reservoir.  What makes this tour remarkable is the boat.  The boat is in one word: amazing.  Four Caterpillar diesel engines pump 3500 horsepower (enough power to push three fully loaded barges) to four water jets, giving it a top speed of 53 mph, and the maneuverability of a helicopter (zero degree turning radius).  What the crew onboard is really proud of is the ecological friendliness of the boat.  The boat has been designed to have a radically reduced wake, even at high speed.

The wake does not contribute to erosion of the shores as it goes by, and the vessel will not disturb the neighborhoods along the river while it passes along.   The boat can also stop on a dime, and when it does, the hull design helps to aerate the water, causing the wake’s energy to be absorbed by the air bubbles even faster.  Our guide for the tour was Joseph, a naturalist who loved to talk about the river we were on and the wildlife on and around it.  The tour was two hours, and the highlight came when we passed William’s Island.  There on a channel marker was an active Osprey nest. 

A close look showed a little Osprey chick’s head poking out, just above the top of the nest.  Close by, the mother kept watch.  The rest of the way, the Ospreys flew around the boat, probably hoping the boat would scare up some fish.  The end of the tour was fun, with the captain showing off the boat’s docking ability.  Using a remote control on the upper deck, the captain moved into position, then executed a 360 degree turn (showing off), followed by another 180 degree turn so that the boat was pointed back downriver.  Then, he simply moved the boat sideways until close enough to the dock to tie off.  It was an amazing demonstration of the ability of the boat.
   
Next on the day’s agenda was a true IMAX experience: a wonderful 3-D feature that explored the world’s oceans with breathtaking detail.  Many of the animals in the film can also be seen inside of the Tennessee Aquarium.  The time had come to peruse through the main buildings in a more personal, laid-back sort of way.  The Tennessee Aquarium is an amazing place, and their dedication to the education of the public about the species housed there is always front and center.  Honestly, it’s easier to learn while you’re having fun, and that approach is reflected in everything from the design and layout of the place, down to the interaction of the staff with the public.  
   
After such a fun-filled day, we didn’t want to go home just yet.  That’s when Steven revealed his surprise.  A room at the Double-Tree Hotel!  He had set it up after leaving Atlanta, and the choice was perfect.  Just three blocks from the Aquarium, the hotel has art-deco rooms and a three star restaurant, Eleven.  All in all, a perfect end to a wonderful day.
   
If you would like to see what the Tennessee Aquarium has to offer, ticket prices and upcoming events, you can find them on the web at: www.tnaqua.org.  They even have a live web-cam of the penguins, 24 hours a day, a perfect way to lift your spirits on a hot Tennessee day!