On our accidental trip to Gatlinburg, one attraction we definitely wanted to see was the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. We had no idea what an immersive experience this was watching piranha with their frightening teeth, transporting through a different world through the tank tunnels, and watching the funny penguins all patiently line up to get their food.

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What To Know Before You Go

The Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is in the center of Gatlinburg downtown area. It was in the news in the last couple of years due to local wildfires of 2016 when it came close to being burned (at one point the fires were only 50 yards away). Luckily it never reached the aquarium, and all of the animals were unharmed.

The aquarium boasts that there are more creatures inside the aquarium that there are residents of the entire city of Gatlinburg. Once we walked in, we could easily believe this fact.

Outside the Gatlinburg Aquarium with the sign that says Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies Best U.S. Aquarium
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies

Visiting The Aquarium

Right through the entrance, there is an enormous children’s play area, which seemed like a great place for children to play on a hot afternoon to get some energy out before walking through the aquarium.

Indoor playground inside the Gatlinburg Aquarium
Indoor play area

One thing to note, they do have sensory friendly hours on some days for children and adults that need a quieter experience. It was wonderful to see inclusive programs like that so everyone can enjoy the experience.

Pirahna – Can Skin A Cow In Minutes

Once we headed over to the fish, the first exhibit we saw was filled with Piranha. We could see their jagged teeth as they swam around their tank. The sign stated that the Piranha could actually skin a cow in minutes, which was frightening but believable. They were mesmerizing to watch and super fast as they swam around the tank. One fact that we read in our research is that it was very hard to get permission to bring the Piranha to the area since the aquarium had to guarantee that the Piranha would not escape into the river that surrounds the building.


Seahorses And Sea Dragons – The Gender Switch

We personally love Seahorses and Sea Dragons and enjoyed just watching them float around for a while. The colors were beautiful in the tank, and they were funny interacting with each other and chasing each other around the tank. One of our favorite facts about the unusual creations is that the males carry out the pregnancy, which was a true gender switch that some of us human women could really get behind.

Immersive Tunnels To A New World

By far the highlight of the aquarium is the tank tunnels. These were absolutely breathtaking experience as we went through them. It felt like another world and there are times we felt like we were diving through the water.

There was a moving walking to stand on as we traveled the tunnels so we could really focus on the fish, sharks and other animals. It was an immersive and transcending experience. There are also times when divers go into the water to feed the fish every day. We missed that when we went, but think that would be so much fun to watch.

Walking through the tunnels int the tanks of the Gatlinburg Aquarium
Tank Tunnels of the Gatlinburg Aquarium

The Sharks were incredible to watch since we could get up close to them and watch them swim menacingly around.

Nurse shark swimming in the tank seen through the tunnels in Gatlinburg Aquarium.
Nurse Shark

The Sawfish was an incredible animal to see as it was just resting on the tunnel ceiling as we went by.

Saw fish resting on the tunnel ceiling in the Gatlinburg Aquarium

There were a lot of underwater exhibits like a sunken boat that made it even more fun to watch and made it seem like we were divers in the water exploring the ship.

Fish swimming in front of sunken boat as one of the exhibits in the Gatlinburg aquarium.
Fish with underwater exhibit

Cuttle Fish, Jelly Fish, And Crabs – Oh My!

There were a lot of more exotic exhibits and tanks to see after the tunnel. We watched the slow and soothing jellyfish move around their tank while colors changed around them, saw the cuttlefish that were so vibrant and hilariously swam backward most of the time, and all the different species of crab, especially one of them as it just seemed to stare and judge us.

Lunch With The Penguins

Toward the end of the visit is the penguin enclosure. We got there just in time for the feeding, and it was fascinating to watch the penguins all line-up – most patiently and a couple not so patiently – to get fed. They all had their name on one of their fins so you could watch the different personalities of the penguins as they walked or swam around.

We really enjoyed our visit to the aquarium experience would highly recommend it to both adults and kids.

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