Return to the River


This story was originally published in the 2012 April/May issue of Chattanooga Magazine. 

American River Otters entertain guests with their playful antics.

In 1992 Chattanooga’s renaissance ignited when the Tennessee Aquarium opened its doors on the historic downtown riverfront. Initially envisioned on a smaller scale, the Aquarium became the largest freshwater aquarium in the country and the iconic symbol of Chattanooga’s rebirth.

The $45 million project was funded by the private sector—a group of visionaries committed to rebuilding Chattanooga. Twenty years later, this investment has paid dividends to the city and its citizens, with an estimated economic impact of $2 billion on downtown revitalization and over $750 million in tourism revenues in the city each year. With more than one million annual visitors, the Aquarium has inspired a “return to the river” on a scale not even the most optimistic city planners could have imagined.

“The Tennessee Aquarium continues to be inspiring and exciting,” says Rick Montague, who served as Chairman of the Moccasin Bend Task Force, which helped lay the foundation for riverfront development in the early 1980s. “In an entertainment, visitor, education, and cultural district, the Aquarium is the most visible symbol and center of Chattanooga.”

The Community’s Aquarium
Imagined with broad community input through the Tennessee Riverpark Master Plan and “Vision 2000” planning process, the Tennessee Aquarium has always considered itself the community’s Aquarium.

In touch with the penguins at the Tennessee Aquarium.

“Our goal as a nonprofit is to help people experience the link that exists between humans and the environment and to inspire them to protect it,” says Charlie Arant, president of the Aquarium. “It is the community’s Aquarium, and it is important to keep the Aquarium fresh and new and something the community will always be proud of. It is an absolute gem for this community.”

The Aquarium has expanded its impact dramatically over the last twenty years, adding the IMAX 3D Theater in 1996, the Ocean Journey expansion in 2005, and the River Gorge Explorer in 2008. Beyond these physical additions—which have brought exciting new exhibits, aquatic life, animals, and programs—the Aquarium has continued to enhance its programs and serves over 100,000 students each year.

“Since the Aquarium opened, we have impacted more than 2.5 million students and teachers through field trips and outreach programs,” says Tim Baker, director of Education for the Aquarium. Education programs include school group tours, classroom programs, distance learning, lunch & learn events, gallery presentations, behind-the-scenes tours, summer camps, youth and adult volunteer opportunities, internships, a “sleep in the deep” program, plus several special events each month.

The Aquarium has won many accolades for its education and conservation work, including a Pinnacle Award for outstanding interactive K-12 programs, a National Medal for Museum Service, a Conservation Educator of the Year Award, and a North American Conservation Award for Significant Achievement (to name just a few recent awards). The Aquarium has also been named “Highest Rated” U.S. Aquarium by IMPACTS and ranked among “Top Aquariums” in the U.S. by TripAdvisor.

Pop-Up Tank at the Tennessee Aquarium.

Perhaps the highest honor the Aquarium has received is accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). “The Tennessee Aquarium is the only aquarium or zoo that is accredited by SACS,” says Baker. “We want to hold ourselves at a higher educational standard and emphasize that all of the experiences we give our students and visitors have an educational component.”

A Conservation Leader
The Aquarium’s education impact extends to its conservation and research arm—the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI)—which is actively engaged in conservation and research programs to help restore the delicate balance of biodiversity throughout the Southeast.

“Tennessee and Alabama have more species of fish than any state in the U.S.,” says Anna George, Director and Chief Research Scientist of TNACI. “Tennessee has over 300 species of fish, so there are a lot of different things to study here and conserve.”

TNACI’s longest-running project is the lake sturgeon program, which is restoring the lake sturgeon population in Tennessee, where it was lost in the 1960s. Through the work of TNACI and its partners over the last twelve years, nearly 135,000 sturgeons have been released into the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. Other restoration projects include the Barrens Topminnows, Yellow-Blotched Map Turtles, and 18 species of mussels and snails.

TNACI scientists also survey major southeastern river drainages to assess the health and distribution of aquatic species and respond to environmental crises, such as the coal ash spill in Kingston, Tennessee, in December 2008. TNACI scientists worked with researchers from Appalachian State University and Appalachian Voices to monitor conditions at the spill site and survey the health of the affected aquatic community.

Sturgeon restoration by the Tennessee Aquarium.

With education core to TNACI’s mission, its scientists train the Aquarium’s education staff, offer internships for college students, and lead a variety of outreach programs, such as the Sustainable Seafood program launched last year. All of TNACI’s programs are geared at helping people learn to make smart choices to conserve the environment.

“Everything we do on the land impacts what happens in water, and everything we do in water impacts what happens on land,” says George. “It may seem like recycling is not important, but when I spend time in creeks and I see how many soda bottles are floating down them, I can tell you it is absolutely important.”

TNACI is also offering its first summer camp this year, a week-long residential camp for high school students from around the region. “We will be working with students to help them become conservation leaders in their own communities,” says George. “We will be exploring a variety of conservation problems and solutions in Chattanooga, and students will be working to design their own conservation projects.”

Looking Ahead
As the Aquarium celebrates a major milestone, the staff is hard at work planning for its future as a top education and conservation resource for the community, region, and nation.

“The people who work at the Aquarium are extremely dedicated and proud of what they do,” says Arant. “It really is encouraging to see the commitment of the professional staff and nearly 600 volunteers who make this the best aquarium you could find anywhere. With the community’s continued support, I see the next twenty years holding as much opportunity for us as the last 20 years.”

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Jennifer Watts Hoff is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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