Dark black eyes stare back at you. Rows of sharp, jagged teeth grin in that dreaded, massive jaw. And when that ever familiar fin breaks the surface, forget about it. I can hear the Jaw’s theme song playing already. If you’re as much of a fan as I am of the magnificent, terrifying sea creatures, make a trip to the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies during your next vacation to the Gatlinburg, Tennessee area. I know it’s a little early to be celebrating (my personal favorite week of the year) Shark Week, but Ripley’s shark exhibits are perfect to visit during anytime of the year, especially their new Perfect Predators interactive experience.
Ripley’s Aquarium has been voted the number one aquarium in the country by the widely-used TripAdvisor, a website dedicated to reviewing hotels, flights, restaurants, activities and more to give you the perfect vacation. A trip through the aquarium’s different exhibits will instantly make you agree with the title. Explore the ocean, a coral reef and a tropical rainforest. Touch a stingray, watch penguins play and, of course, come face-to-face with a thirteen-foot shark.
At Shark Lagoon, a three hundred and forty-foot long glide path takes you through an underwater tunnel. Above and around you, sharks move effortlessly through the water, among sea turtles, moray eels, tarpons, stingrays and more. Some of the most terrifying creatures from under the sea live among each other in this beautiful tank. The tunnel allows you to see the animals from all different angles, giving you a truly incredible experience.
Sand tiger sharks are, in my opinion, some of the most terrifying-looking sharks. Their white eyes stare lifelessly at you, though at the same time, they seem to be peering deep into your soul, into your darkest fears, as if waiting to bring them to surface. And those teeth! Their rows and rows of crooked pearly whites are almost always open, like the shark is warning you – you see these suckers? Yeah, I can take you. But don’t worry when you board the glide path and one of the first animals you see is this horrifying face, because sand tigers are the most widely-used sharks in aquariums for a reason. Naturally, part of that is its intimidating thirteen-foot length, but sand tigers also have a high tolerance for being in captivity and aren’t typically a threat to humans, with only two fatal attacks on their record.
Ripley’s newest aquarium is all about the sharks. Perfect Predators: SHARKS! was designed to give guests the opportunity to gain a better appreciation for the massive predators. Many people have a fear of sharks, even refusing to go near the ocean waters in case they see that fin break the surface, and rightly so. For years, pop culture has been telling us to hate these creatures. Think back to the first time you saw Jaws. I know I left the room running. The powerful, huge jaws regularly clench down on human flesh in the movies. Many of the programs running during Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week focus on the fatalities sharks produce. I won’t lie, I’m a sucker for the corny shark horror films, but truth be told, you’re more likely to win a Nobel Prize than to be attacked by a shark.
This new exhibit provides you the chance to appreciate the sharks. There’s a reason they have ruled the seas for millions of years. The exhibit has more than thirty hands-on interactive displays that will give you an authentic shark experience. Get a close-up look at what shark skin looks like. From a distance, it looks smooth, right? Well, you might be surprised when you travel through the exhibit and see it up close. Despite its position in the top ten deadliest shark list, the hammerhead is probably still in the most ridiculous-looking sharks category. In this exhibit, stick your face in a hammerhead model and watch the ocean world through the eyes of this shark. Get an anatomy lesson on the creatures who have been called the ocean’s garbage can, and discover what man-made objects have made their way into their bellies. And do something your mother would never approve of – stick your hand in a shark’s mouth and feel its powerful clutch. Perfect Predators offers you the chance to explore more of these magnificent creatures for a better understanding of why they are so terrifying, but also why you should help keep them chowing down – on fish, I mean.
When the aquarium closes, don’t worry. Your shark experience isn’t over yet. We all remember the fun we used to have at sleepovers as a kid. Truth or dare, pillow fights, junk food, prank phone calling… Well, now bring your kids for a sleepover experience unlike any you’ve ever had before. Watch a professional dive show, search the aquarium in a fun-filled scavenger hunt, chomp down on some pizza, then settle in for a night underneath the sharks. Sleep with the Sharks is a Ripley’s Aquarium favorite event, especially for school classes and groups. The night begins with a warm-up game to get everyone more acquainted with each other and the aquarium. Then, watch a live dive show before enjoying a late night activity and a pizza snack. The scavenger hunt comes next, with a self-guided tour of the aquarium. When it’s time for lights out, the excitement doesn’t stop. Camp is set up in Shark Lagoon, where you watched the sand tiger sharks swim among the moray eels and the ever-hungry tarpon fish. Find out: do sharks sleep? Then, wake up the next morning to a continental breakfast and a creature feature show. At Ripley’s Aquarium, the shark fun never stops.
If you’re not staying the night with the sharks, stay in one of the hotels nearby the aquarium. The Sleep Inn & Suites Gatlinburg, Westgate Smoky Mountain Hotel and Best Western Twin Islands are three hotels that provide a comfortable stay, located within a half-mile of the fun. If you’re looking for some excitement above the sea for the next day, try the Gatlinburg Sky Lift, which takes you on an exciting and peaceful journey over the city’s scenic sights. The Hard Rock Cafe is perfect for your dinnertime needs, with an exciting musical experience with every meal.
Shark Lagoon and the Sleep with the Sharks activity are both regulars at the Ripley’s Aquarium, but Perfect Predators is only available for a limited time. Don’t miss out on the exciting and interactive experience that gives you more knowledge of and appreciation for these great creatures. Spend the whole day – and night – with sharks, as well as the other exhibits in the museum. Then the next time you hear the familiar chords of the Jaws theme song, maybe you won’t be quite so nervous.