City in the Spotlight: Visit the ocean in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – The original Aquarium building, re-named River Journey, tells the story of the river – following the path of a raindrop from the Appalachian Forest to the Gulf of Mexico. The Ocean Journey building continues the story and takes visitors under the waves, and into the open ocean beyond.

“From the free-flying song birds in River Journey’s Cove Forest to the Undersea Cavern of the new Ocean Journey building, the Tennessee Aquarium combines both freshwater and saltwater habitats to give visitors an experience unlike any other,” said Charlie Arant, Tennessee Aquarium president. “Much like the Tennessee River connects us to the Gulf of Mexico, the Aquarium strives to connect our visitors to the natural world. Our goal is to help our guests experience the link that exists between them and the environment and to inspire them to preserve it.”

The centerpiece of the new Ocean Journey building is an immense replica of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a reef system located in the Gulf of Mexico. This saltwater exhibit, called the Secret Reef, holds 618,000 gallons of saltwater and gives visitors a vast and endless view of a dynamic coral ecosystem. Large sand tiger and sandbar sharks cruise the exhibit, while hundreds of silver schooling fish swirl above colorful reef fish and intricate coral formations.

The intricate habitat found in the Secret Reef exhibit mimics coral formations found in the Flower Garden Banks. A first-class diving destination, the Flower Garden Banks is 350 acres of massive coral reefs that serve as a home for dense schools of tropical fish, stingrays, turtles and sharks.

“Imagine gazing into a coral reef teeming with 10-foot-long sharks, fierce barracuda and a mosaic of colorful reef fish,” said Jackson Andrews, Aquarium director of husbandry and operations. “The size and design of this exhibit give our visitors the chance to experience an ecosystem like the Flower Garden Banks in way that, until now, only divers could.”

Thom Demas, Aquarium curator of fishes, agrees. “I’ve been diving on the Flower Garden Banks and this exhibit looks as if we’ve picked up a portion of the reef and brought it here,” Demas said. “You see these amazing coral formations, the behavior of the animals and you get the impression that the exhibit just goes on forever – out into the open ocean.”

The coral formations seen inside the Secret Reef exhibit are not real coral, but were created by pressing coral-shaped molds into wet concrete and then painting it. Aquarium staff, exhibit designers and other experts studied images from the Flower Garden Banks to ensure the coral placement is accurate and provides the proper habitat for the animals that call the exhibit home.

“It’s amazing to observe the animals in this exhibit,” Demas added. “The reef fish are moving through the niches created by the coral, the larger schooling fish are weaving in and out and the sharks are circling above them all. All the animals are constantly in motion and their behaviors are like what you’d see if you were diving in the Flower Garden Banks.”

Although the Secret Reef is the largest exhibit in the Ocean Journey building, it is only one of many opportunities for visitors to have close encounters with captivating creatures. Before exploring the Secret Reef, visitors ascend an escalator to the top of the new building. There, they are enveloped by natural light and surrounded by views of beautiful parkland along the Tennessee River. After reaching Level 4, guests step into a Tropical Cove where they are immersed in the sights and sounds of a tropical rainforest.

The Tropical Cove features lush plants, rare and colorful freshwater stingrays and the beautiful hyacinth macaw. Visitors may also visit Shark Island, an animal encounter exhibit with more than 100 feet of shoreline. Here, guests of all ages may touch a variety of harmless sharks and stingrays.

“Many myths surround sharks. They are often feared as man-eating monsters, but in reality humans are a larger threat to sharks than sharks are to humans,” Andrews said. “We hope that interacting with the small and graceful bamboo and epaulette sharks in Shark Island will help visitors see the connection they share with nature and inspire them to protect it.”

After leaving Shark Island, Aquarium guests enter the Butterfly Garden, a serene tropical paradise that features exotic flowers and hundreds of free-flying butterflies from Asia, Africa and South America.

“As visitors enter the Butterfly Garden, they will be surrounded by the sounds of a waterfall and birdsong,” Arant said. “The air will be alive with hundreds of jewel-colored butterflies. These creatures capture the imagination and the garden gives our guests a new way to experience these wonders of nature.”

Following their visit to the Butterfly Garden, visitors descend another escalator to begin their Secret Reef adventure.

In addition, visitors to the new Ocean Journey building will come face to face with some of the ocean’s most unusual inhabitants in the “Boneless Beauties” gallery. The special exhibition, “Boneless Beauties,” is a revealing look at some of the world’s strangest and most interesting invertebrates. Invertebrates make up about 95 percent of all known animal species on earth. They come in all shapes and sizes and share one common characteristic – the lack of a backbone. “Boneless Beauties” gives visitors a closer look at giant Japanese spider crabs, the giant Pacific octopus, several species of jellyfish and more.

Following their visit to the “Boneless Beauties” gallery, guests return to the Secret Reef. With 33 acrylic windows, the Secret Reef allows visitors to explore nearly every part of the exhibit. Large, wide windows allow sweeping views of the entire reef and the animals that live on it. The tallest window is nearly three stories high and gives guests the ability to see the many layers of life in this ecosystem. All of these views create the impression of looking into the open ocean.

Then, much like a diver, guests make a final descent and enter the Undersea Cavern, an experience that will take them inside and through the Secret Reef. Visitors follow a meandering path through a cave inside the Secret Reef tank where dramatic views and animals are revealed at every turn. Guests look out from inside reef formations, straight up to see large animals swimming overhead and step up to windows that allow them to be nearly surrounded by reef residents. Special feeding tubes in the exhibit not only ensure that the small, colorful reef fish and stingrays get their meals, but tubes are located near windows in the Undersea Cavern. This means that visitors get a chance to see a variety of fish behaviors.

The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

See the fun, offbeat and educational
at Chattanooga museums

Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum is the largest operating historic railroad in the Southeast. Relive the golden age of railroading as you experience a 55-minute trip on the Missionary Ridge Local. Along the way you’ll ride through one of Tennessee’s oldest railroad tunnels. Other excursions are available. For more information phone 423-894-8028 or visit the Web site at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, 4119 Cromwell Rd., Chattanooga, TN 37421

The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum

Did you know that Chattanooga is the birthplace of the tow truck? The first tow truck was built at the Ernest Holmes Company, just 3-1/2 miles from the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum, in historic downtown Chattanooga. In the museum you’ll see displays of restored antique wreckers and equipment, collectible toys, tools and other memorabilia related to the towing and recovery industry. The ever-changing collection of tow trucks dates from the earliest days of the automobile. The non-profit International Towing and Recovery Museum was dedicated in the fall of 1995 and all exhibits and funds for acquisitons and upkeep come exclusively from donations, grants, and gifts from individuals and major industry corporations.The International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 3315 Broad Street, Chattanooga, TN 37408-3052. For more information call 423-267-3132, e-mail or visit

Chattanooga Regional History Museum

In addition to the Chattanooga Regional History Museum’s permanent exhibit, Chattanooga Country, the Museum is currently presenting the following exhibits, which are on long-time loan, are being presented for an indefinite period of time:

•Land of Dreams: Chattanooga Department Stores, 1880-1968 explores the years when profound changes occurred in the ways Americans produced and acquired the “stuff” of everyday life.
•Museum Magnet Schools Exhibit, art work by students at Normal Park Elementary and Chattanooga Middle Museum Magnet Schools.
•From Dinosaurs to Baseball Scores, hands on activities for young children.
•Casting Your Lot (in the Broad Street Annex) explores the story of the poured iron industry and its role in Chattanooga manufacturing history.
•2006 History Day Winners (in the Broad Street Annex), the winning exhibits in the 2006 National History Day competition by local students, John French and Michael Reid.

For more museum information or to see a complete listing of the exhibits, visit the Web site at Chattanooga Regional History Museum, 400 Chestnut Street, Chattanooga, TN 37402. Phone: 423-265-3247

Chattanooga African American Museum
The doors to the Chattanooga African American Museum are made of African wood over 100 years old. Inside the museum you’ll see a mural depicting a metropolitan city of east Africa in the 12th century; a replica of the Bushman’s hut; a model of a stucco church in Ethiopia; and much more. Visit for more details.
Chattanooga African American Museum, 200 East Martin Luther King Blvd., Chattanooga, TN 37403. Phone 423-266-8658. Fax 423-267-1076.