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Tennessee Aquarium’s new
Ocean Journey building opens April 29

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (Feb. 21, 2005) – The Tennessee Aquarium, long known as the world’s largest freshwater aquarium, unveils a spectacular new experience on April 29 when it opens a saltwater adventure that explores the mysteries of the ocean.

The $30 million Ocean Journey building in downtown Chattanooga is the newest addition to the Tennessee Aquarium story. The original Aquarium building, re-named River Journey, tells the story of the river – following the path of a raindrop from the Appalachian Forest to the Gulf of Mexico. The Ocean Journey building continues the story and takes visitors under the waves, and into the open ocean beyond.

“From the free-flying song birds in River Journey’s Cove Forest to the Undersea Cavern of the new Ocean Journey building, the Tennessee Aquarium combines both freshwater and saltwater habitats to give visitors an experience unlike any other,” said Charlie Arant, Tennessee Aquarium president. “Much like the Tennessee River connects us to the Gulf of Mexico, the Aquarium strives to connect our visitors to the natural world. Our goal is to help our guests experience the link that exists between them and the environment and to inspire them to preserve it.”

The centerpiece of the new Ocean Journey building is an immense replica of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a reef system located in the Gulf of Mexico. This saltwater exhibit, called the Secret Reef, holds 618,000 gallons of saltwater and gives visitors a vast and endless view of a dynamic coral ecosystem. Large sand tiger and sandbar sharks cruise the exhibit, while hundreds of silver schooling fish swirl above colorful reef fish and intricate coral formations.

The intricate habitat found in the Secret Reef exhibit mimics coral formations found in the Flower Garden Banks. A premiere diving destination, the Flower Garden Banks is 350 acres of massive coral reefs that serve as a home for dense schools of tropical fish, stingrays, turtles and sharks.

“Imagine gazing into a coral reef teeming with 10-foot-long sharks, fierce barracuda and a mosaic of colorful reef fish,” said Jackson Andrews, Aquarium director of husbandry and operations. “The size and design of this exhibit give our visitors the chance to experience an ecosystem like the Flower Garden Banks in way that, until now, only divers could.”

Thom Demas, Aquarium curator of fishes, agrees.

“I’ve been diving on the Flower Garden Banks and this exhibit looks as if we’ve picked up a portion of the reef and brought it here,” Demas said. “You see these amazing coral formations, the behavior of the animals and you get the impression that the exhibit just goes on forever – out into the open ocean.”

The coral formations seen inside the Secret Reef exhibit are not real coral, but were created by pressing coral-shaped molds into wet concrete and then painting it. Aquarium staff, exhibit designers and other experts studied images from the Flower Garden Banks to ensure the coral placement is accurate and provides the proper habitat for the animals that call the exhibit home.

“It’s amazing to observe the animals in this exhibit,” Demas added. “The reef fish are moving through the niches created by the coral, the larger schooling fish are weaving in and out and the sharks are circling above them all. All the animals are constantly in motion and their behaviors are like what you’d see if you were diving in the Flower Garden Banks.”

Although the Secret Reef is the largest exhibit in the Ocean Journey building, it is only one of many opportunities for visitors to have close encounters with captivating creatures. Before exploring the Secret Reef, visitors ascend an escalator to the top of the new building. There, they are enveloped by natural light and surrounded by views of beautiful parkland along the Tennessee River. After reaching Level 4, guests step into a Tropical Cove where they are immersed in the sights and sounds of a tropical rainforest.

The Tropical Cove features lush plants, rare and colorful freshwater stingrays and the beautiful hyacinth macaw. Visitors may also visit Shark Island, an animal encounter exhibit with more than 100 feet of shoreline. Here, guests of all ages may touch a variety of harmless sharks and stingrays.

“Many myths surround sharks. They are often feared as man-eating monsters, but in reality humans are a larger threat to sharks than sharks are to humans,” Andrews said. “We hope that interacting with the small and graceful bamboo and epaulette sharks in Shark Island will help visitors see the connection they share with nature and inspire them to protect it.”

After leaving Shark Island, Aquarium guests enter the Butterfly Garden, a serene tropical paradise that features exotic flowers and hundreds of free-flying butterflies from Asia, Africa and South America.

“As visitors enter the Butterfly Garden, they will be surrounded by the sounds of a waterfall and birdsong,” Arant said. “The air will be alive with hundreds of jewel-colored butterflies. These are creatures that capture the imagination and this garden gives our guests a new way to experience these wonders of nature.”

Following their visit to the Butterfly Garden, visitors descend another escalator to begin their Secret Reef adventure.

In addition, visitors to the new Ocean Journey building will come face to face with some of the ocean’s most unusual inhabitants in the “Boneless Beauties” gallery. The special exhibition, “Boneless Beauties,” is a revealing look at some of the world’s strangest and most interesting invertebrates.

Invertebrates make up about 95 percent of all known animal species on earth. They come in all shapes and sizes and share one common characteristic – the lack of a backbone. “Boneless Beauties” gives visitors a closer look at giant Japanese spider crabs, the giant Pacific octopus, several species of jellyfish and more.

Following their visit to the “Boneless Beauties” gallery, guests return to the Secret Reef. With 33 acrylic windows, the Secret Reef allows visitors to explore nearly every part of the exhibit. Large, wide windows allow sweeping views of the entire reef and the animals that live on it. The tallest window is nearly three stories high and gives guests the ability to see the many layers of life in this ecosystem. All of these views create the impression of looking into the open ocean.

Then, much like a diver, guests make a final descent and enter the Undersea Cavern, an experience that will take them inside and through the Secret Reef. Visitors follow a meandering path through a cave inside the Secret Reef tank where dramatic views and animals are revealed at every turn. Guests look out from inside reef formations, straight up to see large animals swimming overhead and step up to windows that allow them to be nearly surrounded by reef residents. Special feeding tubes in the exhibit not only ensure that the small, colorful reef fish and stingrays get their meals, but tubes are located near windows in the Undersea Cavern. This means that visitors get a chance to see a variety of fish behaviors.

“It was our visitors who helped us decide what form this expansion would take,” said Arant. “Through an extensive survey, we discovered that visitors want to see saltwater exhibits that are as compelling as our existing freshwater exhibits. They also told us they want more animal encounters.

“But the new building is more than an expansion – bigger isn’t necessarily better,” Arant added. “The expansion results from a desire to provide meaningful and engaging aquarium experiences for our visitors and to forge a relationship between them and the natural world.”

The Aquarium expansion is a key element of the 21st Century Waterfront Plan, a 129-acre vision that evolved out of a broad-based civic planning process that capitalizes on the city’s greatest natural resource, the Tennessee River.

“Chattanooga’s appeal goes far beyond the Aquarium,” said Arant. “Visitors come to Chattanooga because we’re a family-friendly destination where you can experience a number of attractions within walking distance or a short drive, as well as our natural beauty. The Aquarium’s expansion is one piece of the larger 21st Century Waterfront Plan – a plan that was created to improve Chattanooga and bring people back to the river and all it has to offer.”

The Tennessee Aquarium inspires wonder and appreciation for the natural world. Admission is $17.95 per adult and $9.50 per child, ages 3-12. Each ticket purchased helps support Aquarium conservation programs. The IMAX® 3D Theater is next door to the Aquarium. Ticket prices are $7.95 per adult and $5.50 per child. Aquarium/IMAX combo tickets are $21.95 for adults and $12.50 for children. Advance tickets may be purchased online at or by phone at 1-800-262-0695. The Aquarium, located on the banks of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, is a non-profit organization. Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Aquarium and IMAX are accessible to people with disabilities. Members enjoy unlimited visits and other benefits. Call 267-FISH to join.

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