GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) - On the show side of the glass, Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies is mesmerizing, beautiful, and vibrant with life and colors, but on the other side, it's a different story. The operational side is where most of the work is done to create such a magical place.
The quarantine area is where new animals are placed for at least a month, to relieve any kind of moving stress, before being released into the show tanks. The biggest tank in the room holds three incredibly endangered, very large and intimidating, sawfish.
"Being able to breed these guys in captivity would always be great, they're vulnerable out in the wild," said aquarium curator Jared Durrett.
He said food is quite the undertaking since all the sea life has special diets. On this day, the sawfish were getting salmon and were fed using a ten foot pole. WATE 6 On Your Side's Ryan O'Donnell was told to hold on tight, because of the animal's strong whipping motion.
"Perfect right there, so keep it down low, look at that," said Durrett as the sawfish took the food.
Next up is the giant pacific octopus. She gets blue crab and salmon. The legs have to be torn off because apparently she won't eat them and it's one less thing to fish out of the tank later.
The food is then placed in an "enrichment toy" for her to figure out.
"We actually put the food in this container and seal it up and the octopus will actually be able to solve this puzzle and actually remove the lid herself and pull the food out," said Durrett.
Durrett and O'Donnell got her attention by touching her tentacles, which started moving up their arms. The force in her suction cups were incredibly strong.
From there, It was off to feed the stingrays, but Ryan needed to change into a full body skin, because they had to get into the tank to do this.
They were target feeding the stingrays to make sure other stingrays don't hog all the food. They were only feeding the spotted eagle rays and their babies, using a PVC elbow and a clicker.
"When that target is in the water, the stingrays recognize that visually and approach the target. Once they approach the target, they have a clicker under water, it's an auditory marker, they recognize that sound and we reward them with that food," said Durrett.
They fed around 8 pounds of seafood to the stingrays. On average the aquarium runs through 1,400 pounds of seafood every week, but it all starts in the kitchen.
Every day, they break up food for the next day. In this case it's mackerel for the stingrays. The head and tail come off, then the guts are taken out.
"We want to get the guts out just in case there are any hooks in their gut, we don't want to accidentally feed that to the animals," said Durrett.
It's cut into thirds and dropped into a feeding bucket, for the next day to do all over again.