Saturday, August 11, 2012

backstage at the tennessee aquarium

A few weeks ago (before I started this massive round of work travel), Darren and I had the chance to go on a behind-the scenes tour of the Tennessee Aquarium.

Actually, let me back the story up to a few weeks before that when I received an email from the Aquarium announcing the birth of two new baby penguins and also offering backstage pass options. For members they were ridiculously cheap, so after my initial round of "OMG-squee-baby-penguins!" hysteria, I calmly (at least I'd like to think it was calmly) asked Darren if he wanted to go.

It took a few weeks for us to find a free weekend to go, but luckily I was able to get tickets for a Saturday when we were free, and we headed up the road to Chattanooga.

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We had a few minutes after arriving before we had to meet our tour group, so I dragged Darren on a hunting expedition around the grounds of the Aquarium while we waited. You see, we've been members here off an on for well over ten years and have made lots of trips out to visit, but it took a post on Design*Sponge for me to realize that there was this awesomely cool sculpture type thing not far from the building. So of course I had to take a few minutes to explore.

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We made sure to be back at the Ocean Journey building in time to meet our group (which was rather small- just 15 people or so, which was awesome) and get started on the tour. The Aquarium was packed with visitors, but we were swept right through the crowd and through a service entrance, then led onto a catwalk over the penguin exhibit.

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You'd think I might have been disappointed to find that the baby penguin (the big fluffball lying down) had been moved to an enclosure for safety (it wasn't old enough to have its swimming feathers yet, and the staff didn't want it to fall into the cold water accidentally) and was barely visible. But, no, I was in total squee mode again, almost laying on the catwalk to shoot photos under the railing (I was using my big 70-200 telephoto lens).

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And of course the other penguins were fascinating, too!

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The aquarium staff had set out nesting material (rocks) for the penguins to use, so there were more territorial scuffles than normal...especially over the fish!

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There was quite a bit of rock stealing going on, too! Whenever the male penguin wasn't with his mate (like he is in the photos below), other birds would come over and grab rocks off the female's nest. Which was kind of hilarious since when her mate was gone he was normally doing the same thing to another bird's nest!

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So cool to see her maneuver the egg around with her feet!

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And here he is bringing her a new rock- how sweet!

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And then when he went off to eat...

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...other birds swooped in to take more rocks away (and you can see the egg underneath her pretty well in this picture).

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After the penguin exhibit, we were ushered in to meet the divers who were just emerging from cleaning the massive saltwater tank.

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We even got to try on scuba gear...

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...which I thought was cool since Darren's birthday present to me earlier this year was scuba lessons and certification- I just have to find time to actually take them!!

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I loved seeing the top of the tanks and all the machinery behind making this place work, and I was even more excited by what happened next!

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One of the marine biologists on staff was coming out to feed all the animals in the tank. Most of the feeding is done through massive tubes that deliver food straight to several different points underwater, but he also had a massive batch of lettuce for us to throw in for the first.

And, guess what!?!? One of the sea turtles came up to eat right where I was feeding!!

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This big guy has been living at the Aquarium for several years- ever since he was injured by a boat and lost both of his back flippers (and got a pretty nasty gash in his shell). We've seen him around a lot on our visits, so to say that I was excited when he came up to eat is a major understatement!

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The last part of our tour was the animal encounter, where we were able to play with two very cool Australian lizards. These guys aren't part of the normal exhibit, but we learned that the Aquarium actually keeps a lot of animals behind the scenes for their educational programs. They also do a lot with homeschoolers and even have some of them come in during the early morning before the building opens to the public to help tend to the plants in the butterfly pavilion- so, so awesome.

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This big guy was Darren's favorite.

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On the drive up we had talked about walking through the rest of the Aquarium since we were already there, but after we saw the crowds (which you could barely walk through), we decided against it.

The very next day I left town on a week long work trip and have been going ever since, so I'm really glad that we took the time to go on this tour while we had it- and before that baby penguin wasn't a baby any more!