IF YOU GO
■ What: River Otter Falls debuts.
■ When: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday, May 2.
■ Where: Tennessee Aquarium, 1 Broad St.
■ Admission: $24.95 adults, $14.95 children
■ Phone: 800-262-0695.
■ Website: www.tnaqua.org.
Cute? Yes. Cuddly? No. Except with each other.
But humans yearning for more time with feisty otters will have their wishes granted as the Tennessee Aquarium officially unveils its new River Otter Falls exhibit on Friday, May 2.
The newly transformed habitat, which aquarium officials say is the most extensive redesign in the attraction's 22-year history, will now house seven North American river otters. Joining longtime resident Delmar are Maya, Benny, Louie, Scout, Hunter and Digger.
Dave Collins, curator of forests, explains that, to get it right, planners of the new state-of-the-art exhibit had to think like an otter.
"When designing this habitat, we looked at it from the otters' point of view," he says. "North American river otters are really land animals that are very good at swimming. To fulfill their needs as terrestrial creatures, we've changed the water-to-land ratio drastically."
The result was the creation of more "edge effect," he explains. Shorelines are important to these active animals, so incorporating a lengthy stream with various pools was one goal.
"Otters really work those edges, looking for food as well as using the shore to enter and exit the water frequently," Collins says.
Another goal was providing digging pits. Keepers say river otters love to play in the dirt.
"They kind of take the equivalent of what we think of as bird dust baths, which helps maintain their fur," says Collins. "They love to roll around in sand, gravel or mulch. So aquarium guests will see the otters rooting around and digging in these areas, looking like a bunch of kids playing in a sandbox."
Two years before construction began, aquarium staff began examining the otters' original space in the Cove Forest to determine the best use of the room.
"We began by creating a 3-D computer model of the space, divided into one-foot squares," says Jeff Worley, the aquarium's exhibit and graphic designer. "A clay model was built as a visual tool to use during design workshops with otter experts from across the country."
Aquarium team members visited zoos and aquariums to gather best practices from other otter exhibits.
Following the lengthy design process, the roadmap for demolition and construction was laid out.
"Construction planning took more than a year before the work began," says Rodney Fuller, facility and safety manager at the aquarium. "Demolition was the most challenging aspect. We had to remove 300 tons of rockwork one wheelbarrow at a time, and the jackhammering was all done outside of normal operating hours."
Collins says it's not only the otters that benefit from the new design.
"Guests have more underwater views that allow them to see the otters diving into the water," he says. "We've seen the otters exhibiting some pretty spectacular diving displays that will really wow everyone."