The River Gorge Explorer will take guests on tours of Hiwassee Island to view sandhill cranes. (Photo: Donna Bourdon)

Those who want to view the annual migration of sandhill cranes have an opportunity to explore the birds up close beginning New Year's weekend.

The Tennessee Aquarium's River Gorge Explorer will take guests on eco-cruises to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, where the largest flock of sandhill cranes in the Southeast outside of Florida stops. 

Cruises depart from Sale Creek Marina at 3900 Lee Pike in Soddy-Daisy at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Scheduled cruised dates are Dec. 30–31, Jan. 1, Jan. 6–8 and Jan. 13–16.

Tickets are $35 for aquarium members and $45 for nonmembers.

Click here for registration information.

According to the Audubon Society, the migration is "among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent." And the River Gorge Explorer offers an up-close view of up to 5,000–8,000 birds on the 400-acre island from a controlled climate.

"It's a great way to get close to these birds," said Kevin Calhoon, Tennessee Aquarium's assistant curator of forests. "You get much better looks from the boat than you do from the observation area. It's just a whole different way to view them."

But it's not just sandhill cranes that are on view. Guests may see the occasional peregrine falcon, black vulture or bald eagle, and thousands of ducks and geese of various species are always around the area. In addition, hundreds of white pelicans have started making an appearance during the journey.

Guests will learn more about the island's historical heritage during the trip. Archeological surveys of the island—which has been occupied for thousands of years by historic and prehistoric peoples—have revealed it to be one of the most significant Native American cultural sites in the region.

On Jan. 16, the cruise will offer an additional presentation at the Tennessee Aquarium in partnership with the International Crane Foundation. Lizzie Condon, a coordinator of Keeping Whooping Cranes Safe, will speak about crane conservation efforts and the ICF's conservation solutions. Admission to the event is free with aquarium admission.