Chattanooga is quickly becoming one of our favorite cities to visit. The city has always been the home of some of Tennessee’s favorite attractions, such as Ruby Falls and the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. Who hasn’t heard of Rock City? With the hundreds of iconic “See Rock City” barns peppering highways across the Southeast, the scenic gardens high atop Lookout Mountain are no doubt familiar to everyone, whether or not they have ever been there.
Yes, the River City is fast becoming one of the Southeast’s prominent destinations. Situated between the growing metropolises of Nashville and Atlanta, the population has been steadily increasing every year until now it is poised to steal Knoxville’s crown as the state’s third largest city. Yet, while new condos and high rises climb new heights in downtown, the city remains a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Situated at the base of the Cumberland Plateau with the Blue Ridge Mountains thirty minutes to the east, there is no lack of outdoor adventures waiting for those who live here. Over the next year, we look forward to exploring more of this region with our readers and discovering everything The Scenic City has to offer.
For our last excursion of 2016, we ventured down to revisit our favorite of Chattanooga’s myriad destinations: the Tennessee Aquarium. Perched next to the scenic waters of the Tennessee River, the aquarium has been a fixture of the downtown skyline since it first opened in 1992. A work of art in itself, the buildings’ glass canopies jut into the sky and have become the icon of the city, as have the Sunsphere in Knoxville or the Memphis Pyramid. The aquarium was the first phase in an extensive downtown and riverfront revitalization project that has transformed the entire city’s landscape.
When it first opened, the complex only included the River Journey building, featuring primarily freshwater exhibits in contrast to the vast majority of other aquariums across the nation. In 2005, an expansion added the Ocean Journey building with fantastic saltwater displays. It doesn’t really matter which building you explore first, but we began with River Journey for this visit. An escalator ride whisks you to the top of the building, where you begin your journey down the mighty Tennessee River. Here in the glass canopy, a small stream trickles through a cove hardwood forest landscape that you might find in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The playful antics of the river otters here can keep you entertained for hours, as they summersault and tumble down the hillsides to splash in the water.
Further on, exhibits display native fish such as chubs and darters which are unique only to our East Tennessee streams. Many of these beautiful fish are in danger from habitat loss, exotic invaders, and pollution. Further along, the Tennessee River meets the mighty Mississippi, and featured creatures include alligators, caimans, and waterfowl that would inhabit the Mississippi Delta region in Louisiana.
The rivers of the world have their place here as well, with giant fish from the Amazon rainforest, territorial cichlids from Lake Tanganyika in Africa, and familiar faces such as Japanese koi or shimmering cardinal fish. The highlight of the tour is the recreation of Lake Nickajack, with fish from our very own Tennessee River. The colossal tank is home to gar, largemouth bass, crappie, freshwater drum, paddlefish, bluegill, and many other specimens that call the area home.
Ocean Journey is truly a magical experience for those who love wildlife and the sea. Once again, an escalator takes us up to a glass canopy, this time filled with a tropical rainforest home to hundreds of butterflies. Every hue of the rainbow is present here as the orchids and butterflies make the entire area a kaleidoscope of color. Hold your hand out, and you might just make a new friend. This area will also be home to a new lemur exhibit scheduled to open in early 2017, so we will have to return soon!
Once you ride back down to the lower level, its time to enter the dark interior of the aquarium and step into the ocean itself. So many amazing creatures and exhibits lie in every direction, it’s impossible to remember them all. Some that stand out by far are the jellyfish. These amazing creatures are displayed as the works of art that they truly are. Sea nettles, upside-down jellyfish, and countless others call for your attention and will leave you entranced by their movements.
The grand finale here is one you have seen from the moment you entered the main building. The central coral reef tank is home to sharks, angelfish, puffers, stingrays, and every other sea creature imaginable. Dozens of species can be found in every corner of the reef and its almost impossible to find them all. We were surprised with a close encounter with the stars of the tank: two enormous sea turtles who came right to the glass, much to the delight of everyone present. Before exiting the aquarium, you actually pass underneath this main tank in a rocky tunnel which makes you feel as if you are really in the middle of the sea.
If you have never visited the Tennessee Aquarium, we highly recommend it. While it may be farther away than Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, it is by far a much better experience. Not only is there twice as much to see, but the Tennessee Aquarium is run by a non-profit organization which gives back to nature by conducting research and rehabilitation programs for injured or threatened wildlife.
To check the aquarium’s schedule, purchase tickets, make a donation, or find out about other adventures offered by the Tennessee Aquarium such as the Tennessee Riverboat Excursion, visit tnaqua.org.