River Otter Falls is newest Aquarium feature
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Jun 04, 2014 | 961 views | 0 0 comments | 4 4 recommendations | email to a friend | print

These North American river otters are enjoying their new home at the Tennessee Aquarium.  Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium
These North American river otters are enjoying their new home at the Tennessee Aquarium. Photo courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

Thom Benson spent 12 years as the one who told what the weather would be during his years as a meteorologist at WRCB-TV.

These days, he’s giving an “otter” kind of report.

Benson made a stop Tuesday at the Rotary Club of Cleveland in his capacity as the senior marketing and communications manager of the Tennessee Aquarium.

He was introduced by Bradley County School board vice chairman Nicholas Lillios, who introduced Benson speaking of his own passion for the water.

“At age 6, my grandfather started taking me fishing in Tellico. By age 8, I started scuba diving in Greece and caught my first octopus at age 9 by hand,” Lillios recalled.

He said oceans and rivers have been an integral part of his life.

“When I moved back to Cleveland, I was a long way from the ocean,” he said. “Someone told me about the Tennessee Aquarium and that it was a good place to go scuba diving.”

He said it is also a good place to volunteer and it was during his training there he met Benson.

“I found it to be a terrific place for adults and children alike,” said Lillios, who still participates in the aquarium’s dive shows.

Benson spoke about the aquarium’s newest exhibit, River Otter Falls.

He said the Tennessee Aquarium has once again been named the highest-rated aquarium in the U.S. for overall visitor satisfaction.

“It is based on an Internet survey of U.S. travelers to all kinds of attractions,” he said. “The Tennessee Aquarium is ranked up there with the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Disney World. Of all the aquariums in the country, we’re one of the top and one of the top 10 attractions overall.”

He said there were also comments about “our friendly and engaging staff.”

“That’s what we pride ourselves in. Not just having world-class exhibits, but also having world-class people because we really believe what’s going on in front of the exhibits is as important as what’s going on inside the exhibits.”

Benson talked about the development of the new section with the playful water mammals.

The exhibit, which opened May 2, was developed by the aquarium staff who thought there was a space in the aquarium that “was not used the best and not what the otters need.”

He said the old exhibit had a den where the otters slept most of the day, and there was a small window space where visitors had to look down to see the otters.

“It was a pretty good exhibit, but you couldn’t get face -to-face with the guys,” Benson said.

He said the staff came up with what is called “The Cover Forest Experience” and the planning began.

“We had to round up the animals and some of the plants had to be taken out to begin this process,” Benson said.

“Just imagine taking this room and measuring it very accurately and then dividing it up on a computer into 1-foot blocks and then start electronically forming this into a clay model.”

He said all the construction happened “after hours.”

“We had de-construction crews working overnight every night since last Labor Day,” Benson said. “They took out 300 tons of rock work from that exhibit and it had to be busted up small enough to go into a wheelbarrow that could go down the staff elevator and out the building.”

“We brought in three times the otters, expanded their habitat space by three times, and increased the view for visitors three times,” Benson said.

There are now seven of the furry critters who scamper, rollick and play and often “follow the keys a child will hold in front of the glass.”

“They are a very curious bunch,” he said.

Benson also paid tribute to his father, who served in World War II, as a way of announcing a special presentation this weekend at the aquarium’s IMAX Theater remembering D-Day.

“D-Day 3D: Normandy 1944” will be shown June 6-8 each day at noon and 2 p.m.

Narrated by Tom Brokaw, author of “The Greatest Generation,” the film is designed to bring to new generations a perspective on how the beach landing changed the world.

Thom Benson (mug shot)