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The Tennessee Aquarium
Celebrating a Decade of Milestones 1992-2002

The Tennessee River sweeps through the heart of Chattanooga in a boomerang shape - the eternal symbol of full-circle return. Ten years after the birth of the Tennessee Aquarium on the banks of that river, Chattanoogans and visitors by the millions have rediscovered the city's roots by the riverside.

In 1984, when Chattanoogans sat down together to share their ideas in a series of "visioning" forums, they discovered one thing in common: They yearned to get back in touch with the river.

It had been three years since a group of architectural students from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville first suggested the idea of an aquarium near the downtown waterfront. Task forces began hammering out the details. A $750 million master plan, which included an aquarium near Ross's Landing, was unveiled. A 1987 report by Chattanooga Venture, the organization that spearheaded the visioning process, called the interpretive center "the engine that will drive the ambitious riverfront development plan."

As the world's largest freshwater center began to take shape, the community rallied
behind it with dollars, time and moral support. When it opened, it told the long-forgotten story of the river. And it became the catalyst that spurred a rebirth of the city.

  • The Aquarium is credited with sparking the rebirth of the city's downtown and riverfront area, triggering more than $1 billion in economic impact and well over $300 million in investments in the Ross's Landing area.
  • More than 11,300,000 people - more than double the original prediction - have visited the Aquarium.
  • The Aquarium created local jobs - 160 full-time and more than 200 part-time and summer positions.
  • The Aquarium has become an important learning institution for 1,250,000 schoolchildren.
  • The number of children attending summer camps grew from 30 in 1994 to a predicted 550 in 2002.
  • The Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute, now widely recognized for its regional conservation efforts and research, was born. Aquarium scientists launched a program to save imperiled mollusks and, in partnership with state, federal and private organizations, bred imperiled lake sturgeon and released them into their native Tennessee habitats.
  • More than $100,000 was donated to the Tennessee River Gorge Trust by Aquarium visitors who put their spare change in the coin drop exhibit. The money helped preserve more than 167 acres of land in the Gorge.
  • In 1996, the IMAX® 3D Theater opened as a complement to the aquatic experience and quickly became a popular destination for education groups and Aquarium guests.

The Aquarium has proven to be more than a building that houses aquatic animals. It is a place of enjoyment for visitors of all ages, an educational institution for families and school groups, a vital research center, a role model for conservation, and an economic driver for Chattanooga.



  • Children parade as colorful "schools" of fish, and live music from Zaire, Russia and the Andes Mountains drifts across the plaza during the Aquarium's grand-opening Festival of Rivers. The three-day extravaganza is deemed "Event of the Year" by the Southeast Tourism Society.
  • By the end of August, 650,000 visitors have toured the Aquarium, meeting the entire first-year goal four months early. With nearly 1.5 million visitors by May 1993, the facility has more than one reason to celebrate its one-year anniversary.
  • Ross's Landing Park & Plaza, a multi-million-dollar city park enveloping the Aquarium, becomes a new gathering spot for area residents.


  • The Aquarium earns AZA (American Zoo and Aquarium Association) accreditation and launches a major research project to study the declining turtle population at Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee.
  • By mid-February, more than 100,000 area students have taken advantage of field trips, computer programs and auditorium dramas at the Aquarium.
  • Parade magazine ranks the Tennessee Aquarium, which generated more than $133 million in spending in its first year, one of the nation's best.


  • The research department opens with a full plate, including a long-term effort to monitor native songbirds and an important scientific conference, Aquatic Fauna in Peril: The Southeastern Perspective, the first of its kind in the region.
  • Thanks to support from patron members and the United Way, the Aquarium's new community outreach program takes the wonders of nature to hospitals, libraries and schools across the Southeast.
  • The first summer day camp welcomes 30 kids in two weeks in a program so popular it will soon welcome hundreds each year.


  • Officials break ground for the $14 million IMAX Center that houses the 3D Theater, Environmental Learning Lab, offices and the Geo Gift Shop. The center is a major addition that will echo the natural environment at the Aquarium and entertain guests with images from around the world.
  • The operations and husbandry staff upgrade the Delta Country gallery with an improved filtration system and a variety of lush swamp plants. In the Nickajack Lake exhibit, they add new acrylic viewing windows and more realistic habitats.
  • For the first time, the Aquarium displays sunfish and other species spawned at the Aquarium's offsite facilities in Cohutta, Ga.


  • A festive crowd celebrates the opening of the IMAX 3D Theater with a parade down Broad Street. Over the next eight months, more than 500,000 visitors will don special lightweight glasses and immerse themselves in the realistic films. In the same building, the new Environmental Learning Lab, the only 21st Century Classroom in Tennessee not located in a state building or university campus, sets a precedent for science education.
  • The Aquarium welcomes its 5-millionth visitor.
  • The Southeast Aquatic Research Institute (SARI), a joint venture of the Aquarium, Tennessee River Gorge Trust and UTC, is launched to protect the area's natural resources and create hands-on opportunities for college interns to hone their scientific skills.


  • The Aquarium marks its 5-year anniversary and pays tribute to its already-diverse turtle collection, the largest in the world, with the debut of Turtles: Nature's Living Sculptures. The new gallery showcases creatures rarely seen in zoos or aquariums, from the beautiful Indian star tortoise to the bizarre Chinese big-headed turtle.
  • The education department's new outreach van rolls into the community, taking with it the Aquarium's environmental message, giving low-income children a chance to view nature's wonders, and delighting kids and adults within a 125-mile radius.
  • The community reinvests in the Aquarium with the facility's first Capital Campaign, which will raise more than $6 million by the end of 1998. The funds pay for the construction of new exhibits.


  • The first changing exhibit, Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep, is an immediate hit, drawing a record number of visitors eager to view the elegant lion's manes, billowing moon jellies and other species.
  • SARI researchers begin raising several imperiled fish and snail species while they publish the institute's first book, Aquatic Fauna in Peril. The volume is so well received by the scientificcommunity that an internationally recognized Harvard University researcher deems it "a professional but very readable guide."
  • The year is the most prolific for turtle hatchlings, with 86 births recorded, including six species never before hatched at the Aquarium.
  • In recognition of its marketing efforts, the Aquarium is named "Travel Attraction of the Year" by the Southeast Tourism Society.


  • The Aquarium unveils its redesigned gift shop, a destination in itself with a more open, "aquatic" look, improved lighting and five easy-to-browse shopping zones.
  • In one of the strongest years ever for education, the Aquarium's home schooling program becomes a national role model. And the facility's efforts to serve disadvantaged pre-schoolers earn kudos from the federal Headstart program.
  • SARI researchers heighten their conservation efforts by moving to the 65-acre, spring-fed breeding site at Cohutta, where they partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to save native mollusks and lake sturgeon from extinction.


  • VENOM: Striking Beauties, the Aquarium's second changing exhibit, opens in an eerie, stainless-steel gallery unlike any other at the Aquarium. Visitors are "safely scared" by dozens of venomous spiders, insects, fish, scorpions and snakes while learning to appreciate their value and beauty.
  • The Digital Communication Center opens inside the Environmental Learning Lab. Aquarium educators use multi-media and internet-based techniques to help students explore the lifestyle of emperor scorpions and other animals.
  • Over the course of the summer, onlookers gather on the banks of the French Broad River near Knoxville to watch the release of 1,200 young lake sturgeon hatched and raised at SARI. The milestone event is designed to help re-establish the species in the Tennessee River system by 2025.


  • In the magazine's annual Readers' Choice Awards, Southern Living devotees name the Tennessee Aquarium one of the top two in the South, no small feat considering there are 14 aquariums in the South.
  • Aquarium staffers prepare for the next 10 years, with the introduction of a new, high-tech ticketing center, renovation of the lower floor of the building, and intensive customer service training for all employees.
  • The Aquarium hosts one of the most highly-attended regional AZA conferences, offering workshops for 330 aquarium and zoo experts across the U.S.


  • Following a milestone year that brought more than $240,000 in federal funding for conservation efforts at SARI - renamed TNARI (Tennessee Aquarium Research Institute) - the institute is awarded its largest grant ever. The $95,000 contract will support a multi-year survey of mollusks in the upper Coosa River system.
  • The revamped, permanent gallery Discovery Hall debuts with baby alligators, odd-looking paddlefish, and a lake sturgeon touch station.
  • The Aquarium celebrates its 10th anniversary with the grand opening of Seahorses: Beyond Imagination in the building's expanded lower level. Delicate seadragons, pipefish and, of course, seahorses are expected to wow visitors with their unusual behavior.
  • The Tennessee Aquarium is named one of the top four animal attractions in the South by Family Fun magazine.

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