The Aquarium of the Smokies

A few weeks ago I took a trip to a veterinary symposium in Tennessee. Luckily enough, professional symposiums like to showcase the local fare in food and entertainment, so I was able to visit the Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.

Yes, it is owned by the Ripley’s entertainment franchise (of Ripley’s Believe It or Not), but we won’t hold it against them. For now.

It touts itself as the biggest, best aquarium ever, and I agree it’s pretty big. Compared to the Jenks Aquarium and my own fish tanks, at least. One of the best features we saw was actually their filtration system. The aquarium filters and reuses their water to reduce their water use, and they do it in a rather large way. The water travels through a bubble filter, sand filtration system, and osmotic filter before being returned to the exhibits. Each exhibit has its own separate filtration system so there’s reduced chance of changing its parameters. They also have automated monitoring of all the aquariums through computer sensors located in each area. How cool is that?

Oh, you don’t like the engineering details? Well, I can deal with that. For instance, instead of having related animals near each other, the aquarium is divided into biomes (including a children’s area, which has a special tank with Dorys and Nemos). They even put in a waterfall for the Amazon jungle exhibit.

For interested parties, the jungle exhibit includes lots of these big round fish called pacus. They’ve also got a fish that you should be familiar with if you watch River Monsters (can you tell I like Discovery Channel?):

What is this fish, you ask? Well, the one on the left is a red-tailed catfish, but the prehistoric-looking one is an arapaima. They are very powerful fish that can breathe air through an organ in their mouths.

Of course, they also had the requisite shark tank. The stars of our show were these sand tiger sharks. The sharks circle the tank often, so to keep their fins from curling, the aquarium made the edges of the walls uneven so the sharks don’t rub themselves on them.

There were also several jellyfish species as well as black drum (a colorful relation to the native version we have here).

(And, no, these pictures aren’t the sign of some latent photographic talent. The jellyfish were backlit so they would show up better against the backdrop of dramatic classical music).

Of course, the area with the crowd around it was the seahorse exhibit.

I think these ones were males being protective, because they jumped down and came right up next to the camera lens.

Sea dragons are a distant relative of the sea horses which can be very delicate and expensive (a single adult can cost $40-50,000 USD). This one is a weedy sea dragon; they also had their more decorative cousins, the leafy sea dragons.

And, as always, we got there when they were feeding something.

No, it wasn’t the cuttlefish this time (though he was begging, the cad); it was the penguins. Two workers were hand-feeding the birds during a  demonstration. The first person doled out the goods while the second recorded who got what and how much.

Not all of them, however, were too happy about the distribution system.

That one on the right looks rather put out, doesn’t he?

There is a lot to like about this aquarium, including its accessibility to a wide variety of people and the diversity of its exhibits. Also the music. The music was very fitting for the exhibits. Just don’t walk through the gift shop so the illusion will hold, because the gift shop is an over-sized Ripley’s sale ad.


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