Behind-the-Scenes Tours Make a Splash Again at Aquariums
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga launched a new guided tour called “Deeper Dives” that treats visitors to an intimate behind-the-scenes experience to see aquatic animals up close. Guests witness how the aquarium’s more than 12,000 animals are nourished and cared for through live feedings, as well as encounters with the aquarium’s animal husbandry staff performing enrichment activities.
“As we restarted programming after the pandemic, it was the perfect opportunity for us to reimagine our programs, including tours,” says Davis Kelley‑Luker, aquarium educator at the Tennessee Aquarium. “For quite a while we’ve wanted to offer smaller, more personalized experiences that highlight more of the conservation work and daily animal care that goes unseen during a regular aquarium visit. The creation of our new ‘Deeper Dives’ program allows us more opportunities to showcase many of these aspects to guests in a fun, intimate way.”
The tour lasts 90 minutes and starts even before the aquarium opens to the public, letting the tour access important exhibits and galleries like the “Flooded Amazon Rainforest” or the “Lemur Forest” with no one else around. Each tour is limited to eight guests, but not because of COVID-19. “By limiting our capacity to eight people on each tour, our guests enjoy a more personalized and conversational atmosphere,” Kelley-Luker says. “Our experience as educators has shown us that eight is a magical number. We’re able to spark more curiosity and make deeper connections.”
For any aquarium considering such a long and diverse tour, it must be certain the team of educators guiding the tour has wide-ranging expertise.
“What we love about a long tour is the chance to let the interests of our guests guide our program,” says Kelley-Luker. “This means our experts need to be ready to answer questions on many different subjects. It requires a very knowledgeable team of educators to make this the best experience possible.”
As for the complications an aquarium should be prepared for when planning such a tour, he says, “Honestly, the biggest challenge was choosing the best overall theme for the tour. With so many unique animals that have interesting stories, it’s hard to fit everything into one tour. So, we hope to offer specialty ‘Deeper Dives’ in the future, where we can focus on a particular subject.”
Kelley-Luker reveals that one of the first will be a tour of the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute (TNACI), its freshwater field-station science center, which is not open to the public and is located a few miles from the aquarium. It’s home to freshwater fishes the aquarium is either researching or raising for reintroduction into the wild.
“Deeper Dives” is offered weekly on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday mornings. The tour costs $40 for aquarium members and $85 for nonmembers.