Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Feeding the (Sea) Monster:

My daughter has an obsession.  Well, several actually.  When she loves something, she tends to love it obsessively.  Such is the case with aquariums. I have no idea why she likes them so much.  For the most part, I find fish to be unattractive, uninteresting, and unappealing.

However, when planning our Thanksgiving trip, she requested that we choose a location that had an aquarium we could visit. It was her only request. Once we settled upon Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg as our destination, I booked tickets for us to visit Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Don’t let the name fool you

You may be thinking, like I did, that an aquarium run by Ripley’s probably has lots of plastic reproductions of fish, like the tallest man figure outside their “Believe It or Not” museums.  I thought that, at best, it would be kind of cheesy.  I knew it certainly wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to our semi-local favorite, the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Even my daughter, as excited as she was to be going to an aquarium, was skeptical when she heard it was a Ripley’s attraction.

Happily, we were wrong.  It is actually a very nice aquarium. So much so, in fact, that in this year’s USA Today Readers’ Choice Awards, it was named the best aquarium in the country.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - why Ripley's aquarium of the smokies is a must see
At Thanksgiving, when we visited, the aquarium is all decked out for Christmas.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review

What follows is my review of Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg.  But before I get to my specific experience, I want to share some of the facts and figures about the aquarium.  For starters, it’s home to over 10,000 exotic sea creatures in 350 individual species. The population of Gatlinburg is 4200, so that means there are more fish in the aquarium than there are people living in the entire town of Gatlinburg! But what are fish without water? The Gatlinburg aquarium contains 1.4 million gallons of water

Once we entered the building and started walking through the exhibits, the first thing we saw was a curious ray who kept coming over to the glass. Still skeptical, I thought he was one of maybe three or four rays at the aquarium.  How wrong I was!  But I will tell you more about that later.  The next thing we saw was a tank of piranhas:

Piranha at Gatlinburg Aquarium Review by

He didn’t look anywhere near as menacing as I have always imagined them to be.

From there, we moved through the Ocean Realm, and found this scorpionfish that almost looked like he was made from lace. This fish is a master of camouflage. Its frilly appendages help it blend in with its surroundings. Their dorsal spines are venomous and can be painful if stepped on.

Scorpionfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. Read my Gatlinburg Aquarium review at

The Tunnel

At another point we got to go through a tunnel that went under/through the aquarium’s largest tank.  This was an absolute high point for my daughter because it was a first for us – not even the Baltimore aquarium has this! I have to admit it was pretty darn cool.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

When a Saw Nose Shark swam over us, we looked at each other and, in homage to a Doctor Who episode, shrieked, “Moisturize me!”

Yeah, we’re a geeky family.

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - Saw nose shark at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies
The Saw Nose Shark, which looks a lot like Cassandra from Doctor Who.

The Penguins

There was an area called Penguin Playhouse. The African penguins there can be viewed inside the building or outside, below the water or above.  Very versatile!  My favorite feature was a tunnel that visitors could crawl through and pop up right in the middle of the penguin habitat:

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies - Penguin Playhouse

What a great way for little ones to burn off some energy and get an up-close look at the penguins! When I did it (you bet I did!), a penguin named Ricky stood right next to the observation tube. He looked like he was spilling the tea with the other penguin.

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The Highlight of the Aquarium (for me)

I was struggling to get a picture that showed just how big the giant Japanese crab actually was when my daughter came over and told me that there was a tank of cuttlefish nearby.  I immediately forgot about the crab and went over to see it.  You have no idea how fascinating I find these fish!

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

That squiggly black line in the eye area is its pupil, and it is supposed to be shaped like that.  In addition to their W-shaped pupils, cuttlefish have a shell that you can’t see here because it’s on the inside of his body. They also have eight arms and two tentacles with teeth on them. It has three hearts that pump its blue-green blood.

But most fascinating to me is that small male cuttlefish who don’t stand a chance of fighting off a larger male for mating rights. A small male cuttlefish will actually disguise itself as a female in order to get close enough to the females to mate with them. They change their appearance by changing their body color, concealing their extra arms (males have eight, females only have six), even pretending to be holding an egg sack.

Cuttlefish, also called the chameleons of the sea, can change their color and the patterns of their skin to communicate – in as many as 75 different ways. The change in color is for camouflage and protection, of course, but it is also used to communicate with other cuttlefish.

Not only that, the color change can take place in just one second. And guess what else – cuttlefish secrete “ink” like an octopus would.  Not only that, sepia dye comes from cuttlefish ink!

Quite simply, cuttlefish are the coolest fish in the world!

Okay, so maybe my daughter isn’t the only person in the family who gets a little obsessed sometimes…

The Boat

The aquarium had a little boat ride that you could pay extra to go on.  It was called the Glass Bottom Boat Adventure, which is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t all that adventurous.

Gatlinburg aquarium review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies features a glass bottom boat ride that you can go on for a few extra dollars.

It’s a small-ish boat that has no engine. An aquarium employee pulls the boat around the shark lagoon by a rope system. It wasn’t as grand as it sounded, but it was pretty cool to look down on all the fish as they swam under us. In fact, the only time we saw the aquarium’s giant sea turtle was when he swam under the boat.

Everything Else … Or at Least Some of It

And of course the aquarium had jellyfish.  I don’t know what it is about these creatures – if I saw one at the beach I would run screaming out of the water, but in an aquarium I am just mesmerized.  Really, though, can you blame me?

Gatlinburg Aquarium review - jellyfish at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

The aquarium had a special exhibit on the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which seemed really out of place.  But visitors who take the time to read the wall plaques in the exhibit will learn that Ripley was instrumental in spearheading the movement to create a Pearl Harbor memorial.

The last thing we did at the aquarium was to get up close and personal with the rays. They had a lot of them there, swooping and gliding through the water:

Gatlinburg aquarium review - there are so many rays at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. You can even feed them!

We were gazing at them when I heard an announcement that we could touch and feed the rays.  Well, we have fed a bear, a tiger, a zebra, and various other animals, so why not feed a ray, too? I went over to the young lady, gave her $3, and came back with a metal rod and three small fish.

One by one, we put a fish on the end of the rod and stuck it into the water.  A ray would come gliding by and grab the fish, pulling it off the rod, without so much as a pause.  It was a pretty cool experience, and I got to touch one of the rays as it swam by.  They’re a bit on the slimy side, and feel sort of like a hard boiled egg white.

All in all, the aquarium took us about three hours to go through at a leisurely pace, and we really enjoed it.  I highly recommend it.  If you’re in Gatlinburg, be sure to check out Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. And say hi to the cuttlefish for me.  😉

Remember to follow me on Instagram to see more pictures from the aquarium that are not included in this post!

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies is located at 88 River Road in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Telephone (888) 240-1358

Gatlinburg Aquarium Review - Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies

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