Editors note: News Courier intern Rebecca Croomes, a student at Auburn University, recently went on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Tennessee Aquarium. Here is her account:
Since its inception in May 2010, Backstage Pass at the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga is a popular alternative to the traditional visit. In addition to regular admission, purchasing a Backstage Pass enables patrons to go behind closed doors on one of two daily tours to catch a glimpse of what keeps the aquarium running.
The afternoon tour, which takes place in the River Journey building, begins by taking visitors behind the main hall of the building, through another set of doors to a staff elevator. The tour leaders talk with guests about facts of the aquarium while riding the elevator up to the fourth floor.
A pungent odor descends as the group disembarks the elevator and travels down a hall of offices to the kitchen. This kitchen is where all the food for River Journey’s thousands of residents is prepared, including such delicacies as cakes of frozen chum, shrimp and, much to the horror of one particular girl on the tour, mice for the snakes.
An algae and jelly mixture, fortified with nutrients and solidified into one solid block, is diced into cubes and placed in a bucket and accompanies visitors to their next stop, the top of the Gulf of Mexico exhibit.
The group files in under the low-hanging pipes, looking down into the deep tank holding rays, barracuda and Stewie the sea turtle. Divers and their assistants come in behind the group and begin to suit up for a SCUBA dive to clean the tank.
As the tour leaders begin to explain what type of fish are in the tank, they pass around the jelly cubes for guests to toss to the hungry fish below, creating a rare opportunity to view one of aquariums larger exhibits from a different angle. The assistants throw lettuce leaves into the pool to keep Stewie from bothering the divers as they swim and other fish while they’re being fed.
The tour then heads downstairs to the Quarantine Room. Quarantine has only been open to the Backstage Pass group since Memorial Day and is a place to visit if guests don’t mind getting their shoes wet.
Tanks in this room are not covered in decorative paint or mesh into the wall seamlessly; this tightly packed room holds new animals or babies born inside an exhibit. Animals are kept here at least the first 30 days of their stay at the aquarium to better ensure their survival in a new environment.
Visitors are kept behind a line taped to the floor, offering a glance into the true science behind the Tennessee Aquarium. Walking around, guests can see tanks upon tanks of cuddle fish, freshwater rays, an endless array of jellyfish, starfish and Riley the octopus.
The group heads out through the water supply room; a loud place filled with a filtration system and a rainbow of color-coded pipes. In this area, patrons learn that all you need for an ideal aquarium environment is some filtered water and just a dash of Instant Ocean, a concentrated sea salt concoction added to all seawater exhibits.
Every tour rounds out their visit with an animal encounter. The River Journey group happened to come across Big Red, a female milk snake with an interesting backstory. The snake’s handler explained that during 9/11, a cargo plane with multiple reptiles aboard was searching for places to keep the animals cool and the Tennessee Aquarium ended up becoming home for the constrictor the group met that day.
After the animal encounter, the tour group is left at the beginning of the actual exhibits of River Journey, which many don’t hesitate to explore again.