Benson: Aquarium gives visitors different view of nature
by DELANEY WALKER, Banner Staff Writer
Nov 11, 2012 | 381 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Almost 20 million people have visited the Tennessee Aquarium, with more than 2 million student visits, according to Thom Benson at Thursday’s Kiwanis luncheon.

“The entire team of the aquarium really works to inspire everyone to look at nature in a little bit different way,” said Benson, aquarium communications manager.

“... We just celebrated our 20th anniversary in May. We are very fortunate because we have a lot of team members who originally helped start the aquarium.”

Volunteers play a crucial role in the aquarium’s existence, according to Benson. There are about three volunteers for every full-time staff member. Staff members number 100. The volunteer scuba divers account for 184 of the volunteers the aquarium uses every month.

These volunteers are instrumental in multiple components of the aquarium. Benson said they do everything from spreading the word about the attraction to cleaning tanks. He also said the aquarium is always looking for new volunteers to help out. Several Kiwanians were recognized as being volunteers.

“We really pride ourselves in being a top-rated aquarium in terms of overall visitor satisfaction. This starts at the top and really ends with our volunteers. They are the ambassadors for the aquarium, and really for Southeast Tennessee,” Benson said.

Kiwanians were given an overview of the aquarium’s mission and programs offered to visitors.

“We have always tried to connect people with our most important resource, which is fresh water and the rivers that run through our backyards. We spend a lot of time talking about native species like Giant Blue Catfish and otters,” Benson said.

Ranger Rick was opened two years ago to further the aquarium’s interactive programs. Special animal shows are offered daily at various times. These shows are geared toward children with opportunities to encounter red-fronted macaws, rose-breasted cockatoos, a Eurasian eagle owl, or even a groundhog.

Additional opportunities are offered to experience nature in Southeast Tennessee’s backyard.

“In 2008, we brought the River Gorge Explorer to town to extend that journey you take inside the two buildings, out into nature. We have a richer diversity of animals and fish right here in our backyard than anywhere else in the United States,” Benson said.

Benson said the aquarium has been involved in numerous efforts to increase awareness of an environmental crisis in the Southeast.

“We have all this biodiversity here in the Southeast, but we also have a lot of animals that are in trouble,” Benson said. “If we can get people to make the connection at the aquarium, while letting them know what is happening to their habitats, then we can inspire them to make a change.”

Lessons are given through interactive shows and exhibits. These include how to pick the proper seafood and freshwater conservation.

A number of conservation projects are completed between the aquarium and partner agencies. More information can be found be visiting tnaqua.org.

“We are now finding that [through] having our agents in the field, water quality has improved. We are having fish return to areas they have been absent from for years.”