The Tennessee Aquarium is a family favorite. There's always plenty to see: playful river otters, weirdly mesmerizing jellyfish, and the fluttering beauties in the butterfly garden. And that's just for starters. Situated along Chattanooga's waterfront, the aquarium complex is as dramatic on the outside as the contents on the inside. You'll know it when you see it.
There are now two buildings: River Journey and Ocean Journey. You'll start your visit by heading up the escalator (or elevator) in River Journey to the top floor, where you'll get a nice view of the Tennessee River and north Chattanooga. From there, you'll start wending your way down through various habitats.
The idea behind River Journey is to follow a drop of water from rainfall in the mountains as it flows through streams, rivers, and swamps from the Appalachian Cove Forest to the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf of Mexico.
Along the way, you'll meet a variety of critters, including those fun-loving river otters, the world's largest collection of fresh water turtles, alligators, prehistoric-looking lake sturgeon, moray eels, sharks, rays, and white herons. Creatures from around the world are also featured in the Rivers of the World exhibit.
Across the plaza in the Tennessee Aquarium's new Ocean Journey exhibit, you'll once again head to the top floor and the sunlit Tropical Cove, which features two touch pools: Forest Pool and the much larger Shark Island. You'll be able to reach out and touch the harmless sharks and colorful rays. It's always a pleasure watching the rays glide so gracefully through the water, like underwater sails.
No tropical paradise would be complete without colorful birds, and here you'll find the hyacinth macaw, which can grow to more that 3 feet high. But the most popular part of Tropical Cove has to be the butterfly garden, with its lush tropical vegetation and jewel-toned butterflies. If you're gentle enough, chances are good one will land on you or crawl onto your finger. By all means, bring your camera!
Now you'll head down the escalator once again to the Secret Reef, the Tennessee Aquarium's largest exhibit, which is based on the Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico. Sand tiger sharks and sandbar sharks are the stars of this show, with colorful reef fish like queen angelfish and blue tangs (think Dory in "Finding Nemo") adding a dash of flash.
For a touch of the bizarre, you won't want to miss Boneless Beauties, featuring giant Pacific octopus, the giant Japanese spider crab and several species of jellyfish. Equally strange are the Seahorses, especially the weedy and leafy seadragons, which are aptly named.
You'll finish up at the lowest level in the Undersea Cavern, where you'll feel like you're in an undersea tunnel winding through rock. Kids really love all the little crevices and peepholes.
Once you're back out in the light of day, take some time to enjoy the beautiful landscaping. If you have little ones with you, be sure to bring along swim suits or a change of clothes for them, because the water features outside the Tennessee Aquarium are irresistible to the younger set. On any reasonably warm day, you'll find them splashing and having a fine old time in the shallow streams and pools.
For details on visiting the aquarium, see the official Tennessee Aquarium website.