Jellies, Billboards, and Lots of Butts: my take-aways from America’s #1 aquarium


no brain, no bones, no specialized systems...yet still alive, and still lethal.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is home to Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, a hundred tacky tourist traps, one shoddy hill for skiing, and, most importantly, the best aquarium in America––Ripley’s Aquarium.

Though located in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in a land-locked state, the aquarium claims to have more fish (10,000 or so) than Gatlinburg has residents (almost 5,000 in 2005).  Rumors of four-eyed critters, piranhas, sharks, and neon fish revived me from my “back-in-class” slump.  My roommates and I bid goodbye to the Wii, assured Super Mario we’d play again soon, and hit the road.

Only one road leads to Gatlinburg (passing through Pigeon Forge where you should try Zorbing).  Along the way, a series of Ripley’s billboards demand “TEXT [insert word here] TO 7707.”  Though I am not privy to obeying arbitrary orders, especially all-encapsulated-billboard commands, curiosity reached for the phone in my pocket.  Three of us began texting frantically any keywords we could recall: SHARKS, GAS, FATAL, WACKY-COLORED-PUFFER-FISH (disclaimer: these may or may not be the actual keywords; text at your own risk… and standard text messaging rates apply).

Oh, the happy little messages that arrived!  The sea creature trivia kept us occupied for twenty or so miles; and, the $3 coupon sitting in my inbox made up for paid parking.

schooling fish exhibit. though they are bribed with food pellets (hence the gaping mouths)

The same road leading into Gatlinburg is the only road of consequence in the town itself.  At stoplight #5, Ripley’s Aquarium smiles down from the right.  The Rainforest, Coral Reef, and Shark Bay are play lands of aquatic delight.  The newest exhibit, Lethal Weapons, compacts all manner of underwater death into one room.  You wander from death-by-electric-shock to shredded-by-jaws and around to paralyzing-injection.  Somehow, though the nearest body of salt water is a measly 8 hours away, dozens of strangely cute, oceanic killers wound up in East Tennessee.  Peeking at a hamster-sized octopus two inches from your nose that could kill you in 3 minutes flat if given the opportunity is a mystifying, and a bit sobering experience.  Our planet is a freak show (and not just underwater).

Past hanging fossils of prehistoric water beasts, through the winding tunnel of sharks and saw-nosed giants, you wind up at Touch-A-Ray Bay.  Now, if you have never touched a sting ray–do it.  The poisonous barbs are conveniently clipped off of the aquarium rays’ tails so you can avoid the fate of our beloved Aussie.  Wait until feeding time when the scuba guy leads them around the ring for your stroking pleasure.  Otherwise, you’ll wind up submerging an entire arm in piss-colored water attempting to pet the polka-dotted bitch who flits by just beyond your outstretched fingers.  Then, soggy and frustrated you will attempt to bathe in hand-sanitizer beneath the reproving stares of strangers.

Don’t be disheartened by my description, for the real show is above water.  Touch-A-Ray Bay unites a dynamic cross-section of human rumps.  Big, small, saggy, tight––butts of all ages and sizes surround the bay.  Little kids drape over the rock wall on their bellies; parents follow suit.  Step back and behold an exhibit of human buttocks held prominently in the air as their owner’s waggle their arms excitedly toward approaching sting rays.

Unwilling to sacrifice the dignity of one especially rotund, wedgie-bearing rear that wiggled heavenward while the owner squealed with delight, I have refrained from posting a photo of the Touch-A-Ray Bums.  Alas, more reason to see for yourself.  Twice a day at feeding time, the buns congregate again, all equally uninhibited as the rays command everyone’s (or so they think) full attention.

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