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Tennessee Aquarium River Journey and Ocean Journey buildings
Tennessee Aquarium

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga has been a centerpiece to America’s Scenic City in more ways than one. The original building, a freshwater and saltwater aquarium known as River Journey, debuted on May 1, 1992. It was the focus of the ongoing revitalization effort in downtown Chattanooga and capped a 20-year effort to bring tourists back to what was once a blighted downtown area. The attraction anchored the creation of Ross’s Landing as a destination within the city, garnering support from other businesspeople who showed faith in a “build it and they will come” philosophy.

When all was said and done, everybody did come, to the tune of 1 million visitors a year. More than a 100 new businesses were added in the multi-block area. Ross’s Landing, the original site of Chattanooga was expanded, adding a pedestrian walkway known as RiverPark. A second building, a saltwater aquarium known as Ocean Journey, was added in 2005 in an effort to keep the Aquarium on a competitive level with the planned Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The Tennessee Aquarium boasts more than 12,000 species of living animals and holds more than a million gallons of water between the two complexes. In 2003 Southern Living readers anointed the town number 3 on its “best weekend vacation with kids in the Southeast” list.

The journey begins in one of the many parking areas near the Tennessee Aquarium. In most visitors park in numbered spots, pay a fee at a nearby kiosk, then continue on to the area of the aquarium, rarely more than a 3-block stroll past some of the many restaurants and other attractions that have located near the aquarium to share its visitors. The unique, attractive design of the brick buildings with a multi-story glass roof makes them easy to spot on the riverfront.
Kids playing in front of the Tennessee Aquarium

Outside the buildings a wonderful water area has been set aside giving kids the opportunity to play in a combination of concrete and water. Whether stepping across a stream on square stones, splashing down steps between the buildings or leaping across two pieces of cement that look as if they had been created by some geothermic upheaval, kids will have fun even before entering the Aquarium. Also look for a pair of trolley tracks left in place by the designer. Cross-ties are bricks imprinted with musical notes and the lyrics to Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Tickets are purchased at the ticketing office in front of the Visitors Center across the street from the Aquarium. Although you can choose which the order in which you visit the buildings, our recommendation is that River Journey should be visited first.

River Journey

Appalachian waterfall recreated in the Tennessee Aquarium
The concept of the first half of the Tennessee Aquarium is to follow a drop of water on a 1,500 mile trek from Appalachian Highlands to the Gulf of Mexico, a journey made by water that falls in the Chattanooga area. Beginning as rain high in the Appalachian Mountains the water quickly combines into a sizable stream and waterfall. Explore the flora and fauna of the unique cove environment, including live songbirds, fish and amphibians that might live in the mountains near Chattanooga.

Descending on a ramp with the tanks to the outside, the “river” gets deeper at the bottom of re-creations of Nickajack Lake and Reelfoot Lake, two vastly different bodies of water on the Tennessee River. Nickajack, an artificial lake created by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) during the depression, features sunfish, bass, and catfish. Reelfoot, a natural lake created by the massive Madrid earthquake of 1812, offers a wide array of fish, amphibians, turtles, and birds in open water.

Turtle at the Tennessee Aquarium
In Discovery Hall, the Tennessee River joins the Ohio River in a swamp environment featuring prehistoric alligators and lake sturgeon that once ruled the land. Paddlefish and salamander abound, swimming to bluegrass music. Finally, our drop of water enters The Mississippi Delta in an exhibit called Delta Country. Through a river of cypress trees and swamps turtles and alligators live with bass and sunfish while herons eagerly patrol the shoreline.

In the final destination on River Journey visitors explore the waters of the Gulf at a Secret Reef and an Undersea Cavern in the Gulf of Mexico, with some of the aquarium’s most unusual inhabitants. Thousands of colorful fish dart in and out of the artificially created reef, never straying more than a few feet from its protective outcrops. They need protection from a couple of toothy predators, a pair of sand tiger sharks that patrol the depths of the reef for food. In the cavern, more sharks and colorful fish are joined by wide array of sea life.

The last exhibits visits rivers from around the world including a mountain stream in China, Russia’s Volga River, South America’s Amazon River, the Zaire River in Africa and the St. Lawrence Seaway, vital shipping connection between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. This gives visitors the chance to see the differences between the great rivers of the world.

When you’ve completed River Journey exit the building and “journey” over to Ocean Journey. Great thing about this is that you aren’t tied to some artificial clock and the break is a good time to enjoy the restaurants in the downtown area. If you like ribs, Sticky Fingers has excellent Memphis-style (dry rub) ribs or Mellow Mushroom for top-notch pizza.

Ocean Journey

Kids and adults reach to touch harmless sting rays and tiger sharks
Ocean Journey once again begins at the top of a 12-story building, just as River Journey did, in a tropical cove lined with plants and tanks of black sting rays and tiger rays. Both of these freshwater rays are considered threatened.  Hyacinth macaws dwell in the aptly named Macaw Glade, their deep-blue coloring unique among the world’s creatures. At the end of the tropical cove is Shark Island, largest touch station in the complex. Here harmless tiger sharks and stingrays (they don’t have a sting or barbs) can be gently touched by kids and adults.

Originally part of the River Journey exhibit, popular display Boneless Beauties moved to Ocean Journey when it opened in 2005. Mystical and eerie, bottom-lit jellyfish move up and down and twirl in tanks as if dancing to the new age music played in the background. A giant octopus also requires close scrutiny as it slowly moves around the bottom of its tank. Kids will especially love popping up in the center of a tank loaded with giant spider crabs.

One of the Boneless Beauties at the Tennessee Aquarium
Seahorses: Beyond Imagination has always been a major draw and over the years their popularity has not diminished. Uniting a wide variety of seahorses from around the world on a single floor, the Tennessee Aquarium takes visitors from Chesapeake Bay to the Florida Keys and on to the Galapagos Islands and the Philippines, all native habitats for this exoskeleton creature.

Wrapping up the Ocean Journey is the Butterfly Gallery, where butterflies from around the world commingle with visitors to the Tennessee Aquarium. One interesting exhibit demonstrates how guests can create a butterfly habitat in their own backyard. Once done with the Aquarium, we recommend you wind down with a trip to the IMAX 3D Theater a couple of blocks from the aquarium. Tickets are on sale at the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau, which discounts the price when you purchase them in a package with your Tennessee Aquarium tickets.

Other things to do in Chattanooga:

Once you're done at the Tennessee Aquarium be sure to spend some time at Riverpark (some people mistakenly call it Riverwalk). There are more than 2 miles of paved trails with stops at the historic Bluff Furnace and Hunter Museum, a world-class art center. A pedestrian bridge over the Tennessee River is also accessible.

You may also want to spend the night (Chattanooga Hotels) and wake up refreshed enough to visit one or more of the other attractions in downtown.

Tennessee Aquarium

Location: Downtown Chattanooga
One Broad Street
Chattanooga, TN 37401-2048
800-262-0695 Toll Free
423-265-0698 Direct Dial
Website: http://www.tnaqua.org/

Tennessee Aquarium


Take U.S. Highway 27 North to 4th Street Exit (1C). The ramp curves right and merges onto 4th Street downtown. The Tennessee Aquarium is two blocks south on Broad Street (second stoplight), however it may be hard to find parking unless its early in the day. The trick is to continue to Cheryl St., turn left and watch for parking on the right. Try to get as close to 2nd St. as possible, then walk the rest of the way to 2nd and turn left. The Tennessee Aquarium is two blocks on your right.

Chattanooga, Tennessee
Chattanooga, Tennessee

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