As I post this the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee is temporarily closed but the animals and workers are all safe. The aquarium will reopen as soon as the downtown area of Gatlinburg is ready, which may take a while; 13 people have died and more than 100 injured as wildfires have destroyed hundreds of surrounding acres.
I visited the aquarium a few years ago as part of my worldwide aquarium tour. It is one of the best aquariums I’ve seen, especially surprising given it is nestled into the Smoky Mountains at least 500 miles from the nearest ocean. Its well-stocked exhibits include a coral reef, various ocean realms, a shark lagoon, stingray bay, and penguin playhouse. A discovery center and “Touch a Ray Bay” entice the kids. They also have a great set of jellyfish displays.
There are no sea lion, dolphin, or whale shows – which are losing popularity anyway – but they do have divers (and mermaids) periodically swim around the bigger tanks.
Video of the fire flaming the hills behind the aquarium brought back visions of the fire that engulfed the National Marine Fisheries lab where I worked many years ago (see “My Life in a Brick”). Our fish were literally boiled in their aquariums as the fire destroyed the main building (now rebuilt).
Luckily, the Aquarium of the Smokies was spared, though not unaffected – at least 29 employees have lost their homes in the fire. Meanwhile, staff are helping to rescue pets and wild animals, giving whatever immediate care they can. This history-making fire continues to be fought by dozens of first responders, to whom the aquarium staff are providing hot meals. Fire season continues as the region has experienced severe drought, in part a consequence of climate change.
So help however you can. The aquarium is not seeking donations, but welcomes holiday cards that they will put on display once they reopen. Once the situation is stabilized and the downtown area can be back in business, I highly recommend a visit. The aquarium is top notch and the quaint downtown is a wonder to behold (Believe it or Not!), especially in this holiday season.
And while you’re there, check out the jellyfish:
David J. Kent is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press). He has also written two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His next book is on Abraham Lincoln, due out in 2017.