Behind the Scenes at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies has the visitor experience down to an art form. Jewel-toned reef fish swim by with amazing frequency and penguins waddle up to the glass. Shark Lagoon has a massive water basin with a glass-roofed, 345-foot tunnel for visitors to view the predators at range sometimes so close they can count the sharks’ teeth.
Ripley’s has done an incredible job of getting this aquarium right. Viewing opportunities are exceptional, and the interactive experiences are fun.
Since it opened in 2000, Ripley’s Aquarium has had more than 10 million visitors –about a million a year. More than 100,000 exotic sea creatures live in its 1.4 million gallons of water. Twenty marine biologists, ecologists and other animal specialists take care of the water creatures.
I’ve been wondering how the staff runs such a smooth operation and decided to take a behind-the-scenes tour. The loud hum of filters and pumps stays behind closed doors. My guides, Larkin Bradley and Lindsey Norwood, both show divers, had to raise their voices as they explained the operations of maintaining the giant exhibits.
“The fish stay healthier and are more relaxed in clean water. Also visitors are better able to see the fish if the water is clear,” says Larkin. The water is the spring-fed Gatlinburg city water. For the habitat of ocean creatures, water is mixed with salt. The large salt mixing lab is off limits because the staff uses a “secret recipe.” The sharks inhabit waters that are completely filtered every 74 minutes. “So the water is cleaner than if they were in the ocean,” says Larkin.
The aquarium’s ventilating system keeps air moving so moisture and pungent fish odors don’t affect the visitor experience. We step outside to the rear of the building where the monstrous air conditioning system and backup generators are situated. In case power ever shuts off, the generators kick in. A supply of diesel fuel is kept on site to cover three days of emergency generator use.
Once inside we walk into a control room lined with computer screens showing the operations. Lindsey says these are monitored carefully and technicians are always on call. From here, water temperature is dropped gradually to simulate winter for the animals, and then raised again in summer to give cues for breeding season.
We move into another operations area where huge quarantine tanks hold new arrivals to ensure they are disease-free. This is also the “private dining room” for Sallie, the 450-pound green sea turtle who prefers to eat away from the feeding frenzy.
In the food preparation area jars hold krill and brine shrimp. Huge refrigerators have loaded pails and bowls, all carefully marked by recipient. “The animals get restaurant-quality food. Penguins get small silvery capelin, but they are picky about how they eat. They swallow the fish whole because they don’t have teeth to chew. The fish has to be straight, or it might get stuck. Some take the fish ‘left eye up,’ or tail first,” says Lindsey.
Larkin and Lindsey feed the penguins, rays, and other fish during dives given for the public to watch. They also help maintain the cleanliness of the tanks by vacuuming the bottoms and cleansing the fast-growing algae off the coral and the viewing windows of Shark Lagoon. Whenever a diver is working in “shark-infested waters,” two other divers accompany to keep watch and nudge away the giants who may get too close to the cleaners. Although the sharks would be extremely unlikely to attack because they are well fed here, they can be clumsy animals and possibly injure a diver with an accidental bump.
Larkin and Lindsey say they most enjoy feedings in the coral reef where the hundreds of colorful fish swarm them for food making the divers nearly impossible for viewers to spot amid the mass of bright tropical fish colors.
If you share my fascination for aquariums, you too can take this behind-the-scenes tour, but it is recommended that you call for a reservation because the times of the tour vary.
There’s an embarrassment of riches as far as aquariums go in Tennessee. I encourage you to check out all the great events happening in early 2013 at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga as well.
Have you visited an aquarium in Tennessee? What was the highlight of your trip?