The Tennessee Aquarium's New Island Life Gallery Now Open

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Spring is a great time for an island getaway and the Tennessee Aquarium has a series of new exhibits to take you on an island-hopping adventure. The new Island Life gallery gives guests the opportunity to meet creatures that live above, and below, the waves from the islands of the Coral Triangle to the chilly waters surrounding Vancouver Island.

Visitors enjoying the sights of colorful reef fishes in the Indo Pacific exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium.

The Indo Pacific exhibit is just one of the many locations showcased in the Tennessee Aquarium's new Island Life gallery.

We’re excited for guests to experience these new exhibits. They’ll feel like world travelers while seeing some pretty amazing animals. - Thom Demas, the Tennessee Aquarium’s director of aquatic collections and life support systems

With the doors now open on a massive, globe-trotting gallery, the Tennessee Aquarium has become the place to be for an inland island getaway.

On March 15, the nationally renowned aquarium on the banks of the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga cut the ribbon on Island Life. Just in time for spring break getaways, this multi-million-dollar expansion to then Aquarium’s Ocean Journey building features a collection of dynamic exhibits whose residents show how isolated ecosystems above and below the water lead to amazing animal adaptations and behaviors.

“We’re excited for guests to experience these new exhibits. They’ll feel like world travelers while seeing some pretty amazing animals,” said Thom Demas, the Aquarium’s director of aquatic collections and life support systems. “I think visitors will be amazed by Flashlight Fish, and will love seeing many other species we haven’t exhibited previously. Islands are remarkably diverse locations, and in this gallery, we’re able to tell quite a few of these stories of biodiversity.”

A journey through Island Life will whisk guests around the world, from the frigid waters of the Pacific Northwest to the tropical seas off Southeast Asia to the teeming wilds of Madagascar. Some of the stops along the way include:

  • Vancouver Island. Recreating the waters off the rocky shores of Canada’s West Coast, Vancouver Island features a wide variety of colorful anemones, urchins, sea stars and other marine life. This habitat is Island Life’s piece de resistance, a massive, dynamic display with artificially generated waves that rush along 20 feet of sinuously curved acrylic before crashing against an upright viewing window.
  • Indo-Pacific Reef. In the mostly barren expanse of the ocean floor, reefs are like underwater islands, oases of life and refuge to a stunning variety of animals. In Island Life, the Indo-Pacific Reef tank highlights a huge variety of aquatic life found off the coast of Southeast Asia in a region known as the Coral Triangle. This expanse of ocean is home to nearly 600 species of reef-building corals and more than 2,000 kinds of fish. Guests entering Island Life will be greeted by this towering, eight-foot-tall display — the second-largest exhibit in the Ocean Journey building — housing a bustling community comprising more than 30 species of vibrant reef-dwellers, including Raccoon Butterfly Fish, Guinea Fowl Pufferfish and Spotted Sweetlips.
  • Cave of the Flashlight Fish. Inside this dim, mirror-filled room, the darkness will glow with flashes of light courtesy of hundreds of Split Fin Flashlight Fish. This deep-dwelling fish generates radiance through pockets of glowing bacteria housed in a pouch under its eyes. During the day, this fish dwells in darker depths before migrating upwards at night along a kind of vertical island to feed in shallower water. This habitat features one of the largest schools ever exhibited of this bioluminescent species.
  • Clownfish and Anemones. Thanks to the Pixar classic Finding Nemo, most people are familiar with the symbiotic relationship of this oceanic Odd Couple. In Island Life, this exhibit will show off how colorful Pink Skunk and False Percula Clownfish have adapted to seek shelter within the venomous, stinging tentacles of Bubbletip Anemones, which act as a kind of living “island.”
  • Marvelous Madagascar. At more than 225,000 square miles, Madagascar is 40 percent larger than California and ranks as the world’s fourth largest island. Because its species have developed in isolation for millions of years, scientists estimate that about 75 percent of this African island’s plants and animals can be found nowhere else on Earth. In a pair of Island Life exhibits sponsored by Unum, guests will become familiar with a wide variety of Malagasy reptiles and amphibians, including riotously colorful Panther Chameleons, nimble Madagascar Giant Day Geckos, poisonous Mantella Frogs, and critically endangered Radiated Tortoises.    

Visitors will be led on their exploration of this densely packed space by a scaly guide, Leon the Chameleon. Throughout the gallery, Leon will appear on graphics and interactive elements sponsored by Unum to pose questions that make guests — especially younger ones — question their understanding of islands and the special adaptations of the animals on display.

“I want people to come away with a whole new appreciation of islands and to expand their thought about islands and the animals that live on them,” says Jeff Worley, the Aquarium’s exhibit designer. “If we can start that when someone is three years old, then by the time they’re adults, they’ll be thinking differently about the world and maybe acting differently, too.”

Throughout Island Life, guests can deepen their experience through fun activities that bring to life many of the species’ unique adaptations via multimedia and physical engagement.

Visitors can speed up or slow down video footage of a Chameleon’s tongue in mid-flight, do their best Clownfish impression by weaving through a patch of oversized anemone “tentacles,” light up touch-sensitive Flashlight Fish and snap turtle-y awesome selfies atop an enormous bronze sculpture of a Galapagos Tortoise sponsored by Tennessee American Water.

These many interactive elements — combined with the ever-changing, always-photo-worthy interaction of the animals — mean return visits to Island Life are sure to offer up new memorable moments and bring to light overlooked details. Yearlong family memberships to the Aquarium include unlimited daily visits for two adults and five children and can be purchased at community.tnaqua.org/join.

After visiting Island Life, the fun continues with a pair of stunning giant-screen films at the Tennessee Aquarium IMAX 3D Theater. Showing through May 24, Oceans: Our Blue Planet features breathtaking footage displaying the amazing diversity and stunning beauty of the planet’s largest, least-explored ecosystem. All summer long, guests can join narrator Kristen Bell (Frozen, The Good Place) to catch up on un-bear-ably cute Giant Panda cubs being trained for reintroduction to the wild in Pandas 3D. Tickets, showtimes and additional information available at tnaqua.org/imax.

Island Life Fast Facts

  • Clownfish protect themselves from the stings of the venomous anemones in which they live by developing a protective layer of mucus.
  • More than three-quarters of the world’s reef-building coral species and more than a third of all reef fish species can be found in the 2.3 million-square-mile Coral Triangle marine area in the Western Pacific Ocean.
  • Henderson Lake on Canada’s Vancouver Island is the wettest place in North America, averaging more than 270 inches (22.5 feet) of precipitation per year. In 1997, it set the single-year precipitation record with 366.4 inches (30.5 feet).
  • About 95 percent of Madagascar’s reptiles are found nowhere else on Earth. One of these is the Madagascar Giant Day Gecko, a brilliant green lizard, which — as the name suggests — bucks the daily schedule of most other geckos, which tend to be nocturnal.
  • Deep water-dwelling Split-fin Flashlight Fish house symbiotic bacteria in pouches under their eyes. These bacteria generate light, which the Flashlight Fish use to see their prey.

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