Travel Log – The Tennessee Aquarium

Travel Log – The Tennessee Aquarium

(Pensacola, Florida; September 2, 2022) – The Tennessee Aquarium offers a whale of a good time as its sleek, modern facility schools visitors in the life of fish, eels, stingrays, and other aquatic life.

The aquarium was established along the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga back in 1992.  Since that time, it has grown to encompass two buildings: one dedicated to river life and one dedicated to ocean life.  The aquarium focuses mostly on Tennessee River life and the oceans around North America, but has significant exhibits on major rivers and life forms around the world (for example, neither the Congo River nor penguins are actually found in Tennessee).

The Tennessee Aquarium exhibits more than 12,000 animals from about 800 species (801, if you count the members of the Homo sapiens species walking through it).  The River Journey and the Ocean Journey buildings are rather marvelous in their use of space.  Unlike the Virginia Aquarium with its sprawling campus in Virginia Beach, the Tennessee Aquarium takes visitors up, into the multi-story buildings housing both ‘worlds.’  Both buildings begin at the top, transporting visitors to the upper floor by cleverly decorated escalators. 

There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ building to start in, but I’d recommend starting in River Journey.  The gist of the narrative visitors follow is the ‘life cycle’ of water, from the inland continent to the ocean.  Therefore, I like starting in the River Journey because that’s the beginning of this tale.

The River Journey’s central area is dominated by the River Giants exhibit.  Two huge freshwater tanks take up the sides of the building’s interior atrium.  This atrium is kept in exceptionally dim light, allowing the shimmering illumination from the tanks to provide a suitably aquatic ambiance while the rather, well, giant creatures living within scoot about.

The River Giants belie the idea that river life is small. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

These are freshwater critters from all over our blue globe.  Inside you’ll see titanic fish such as the giant pangasius, a member of the shark catfish family from places such as the Mekong River in East Asia.  The giant pangasius can reach up to nine feet long and weigh over 300 lbs.  You’ll also find giant whiptail rays from Australia soaring about like underwater flying saucers.  These rays can grow to over three feet in diameter and slide through the water with the same grace as a soaring eagle gently riding the winds over a mountain range.  The glass magnifies these beasties, of course.  It has to be thick enough to support the weight of the thousands of gallons of water, but don’t get complacent.  The whiptail ray might look to be five feet across due to this effect, but a three-root ray is still quite impressive!

As you descend from the top floor down, you’ll cycle through the central atrium several times, allowing different views of the River Giants and the crowds crowding the tank windows.  Between these aquatically bucolic scenes, you’ll explore an Appalachian cove, where the journey of the water drop starts.  Filtering through this ecosystem, the water supports the life of North American river otters, birds, trout, and other native fish.  You’ll tour Rivers of the World, Tennessee River Gallery, and Delta Country, the latter giving an insightful look into the Mississippi River Delta in southern Louisiana.

Upon completion of your interviews with the alligators, turtles, otters, and various other fishes living out their own River Journies, exit back into the shining Tennessee sunlight and cross over the Ocean Journey building. 

Japanese spider crab. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

The escalator escorting you to the top floor of Ocean Journey slides past enormous picture windows providing a great view of Lookout Mountain, the River Journey building, and the Tennessee River.  The escalator will deposit you just outside of the stingray touch tank, and you begin your ‘descent’ into the Gulf of Mexico’s waters with butterflies!

The Tennessee Aquarium has the most wonderful indoor butterfly garden.  Visitors experience this unexpectedly enchanting enticement upon leaving the stingray touch tank.  The garden, warmed by the sunlight coming through skylights, provides a safe habitat for Monarchs, Doris, White Angled Sulfurs, and other fantastic butterflies.  If you’re very lucky, one or two might alight upon your shoulder or finger, but the aquarium staff manning the garden are quick to prevent visitors from reaching for the butterflies.  Let them come to you if they want.

The butterfly garden provides a unique and relaxing space as you walk amongst the fluttering insects. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

The Ocean Journey building has the requisite invertebrate room, but it’s done on an impressive scale and includes several species from around the planet.  A number of columnar tanks of jellyfish, all glowing with interior lights, let visitors get the impression they’re standing surrounded by the gelatinous creatures.  Pacific octopuses, giant Japanese spider crabs, and cute little cuttlefish provide a thorough education about these animals.

The Secret Reef tank is the centerpiece exhibit.  This lang, winding exhibit runs through a tank simulating the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico.  The real-life Flower Garden Banks are centered around reefs in the gulf that established themselves atop sea mounts and salt domes.  The reefs then, of course, attract other life, creating these underwater ecosystems.  The area was declared a National Marine Sanctuary by President George H. W. Bush in 1992.

The only downside to the aquarium is the same I find at most other large aquariums: noise.  These types of exhibits do not lend themselves to soundproofing due to the materials they have to be constructed from.  The steel, glass, resin, and plastic needed to build tanks capable of supporting the weight of the water reflect sound.  Even if no children are squealing with innocent delight and excitement, the general conversation of the visitors can create a cloud of incessant noise.  If you suffer from noise sensitivity I recommend bringing a set of small ear plugs.  These will significantly lower the ambient noise volume, thereby assuring your peace of mind so you can enjoy the exhibits.

Jellyfish. Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Nathanael Miller, 02 August 2022)

Tickets for the Tennessee Aquarium can be purchased online at their website (listed below).  These tickets can include an Imax show if you like, or you can just buy the basic ticket and tour the exhibits.  The aquarium sets entry times along with your tickets, so make sure you know what time your ticket affords you entry.  This system allows the aquarium to control traffic flow, preventing major gluts of people all at once.  Each building has a gift shop, but I believe the shop in the River Journey building to be the better shopping option.  It’s larger than the Ocean Journey shop and has more to offer.

Chattanooga offers an incredible amount of adventure, from Civil War sites to magnificent caves with hidden waterfalls, to water and other outdoor sports.  However, if the day is too hot, or else our famous Southern thunderstorms are rolling about…or else you simply seek to explore the mysteries of the deep, the Tennessee Aquarium is definitely a place I recommend you spend a day.  And that’s no fish tale!

– Check out my video on this subject at:

-Visit the Tennessee Aquarium’s website at:

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