Imagine coming inches away from a live shark baring its teeth at you, or visualize a den of alligators just steps away from where you stand, or envision a 100-year-old sea turtle slowly swimming past you. You don’t have to imagine any of it, you can experience it for yourself at one of the three North Carolina Aquariums.
Preserving Our Coasts: North Carolina Aquariums:
The North Carolina Aquariums have three locations along the North Carolina Coast, Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, and Roanoke Island, all are public aquariums operated by the state.
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher
The aquarium was included among the Best Aquariums in the United States by the Travel Channel and is one of the Top Ten Attractions in North Carolina.
The main focus of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, which is located in Kure Beach, is to educate visitors about the natural habitat and the waters of the Cape Fear region.
The Cape Fear Conservatory, the visitor’s first stop in the aquarium, features freshwater life. In this large, tree-filled atrium, streams, ponds, and swamps are home to frogs, snakes, bass, catfish, and perch. Box turtles hide among the Conservatory’s groundcover.
American alligators native to North Carolina occupy one of the larger exhibits in the Conservatory. An albino alligator exhibit opened in 2009. Also, in the aquarium is an exhibit featuring the venomous snakes of the region, including several species of rattlesnake, copperheads, and cottonmouths.
The Coastal Waters Gallery, which includes the Coquina Outcrop Touch Pool, provides hands-on opportunities to learn about sea urchins, horseshoe crabs, whelks, and other creatures of a rocky outcrop surf zone. Masonboro Inlet Jetty features the fishes common around a wave-washed rock jetty, an indoor salt marsh, a seahorse habitat, and a loggerhead sea turtle display.
The Open Oceans Gallery includes Sharkstooth Ledge, which features fish common to offshore North Carolina, such as pufferfish, hogfish, and filefish. The gallery also displays octopus, jellyfish, and corals native to the state’s waters. A new multimedia suite features an extinct whale-eating shark called Megalodon.
Holding 235,000 US gallons, Cape Fear Shoals is the largest of the aquarium’s saltwater exhibits. The 24-foot deep replica of an offshore reef affords two-story, multi-level views of large sharks, stingrays, groupers, and moray eels.
The Exotic Aquatics Display features animals native to Indo-Pacific and other ocean regions. These displays include spiny lobsters, the red lionfish, and a North Carolina native, the spotted scorpion fish.
The aquarium has also opened the Bamboo Shark Touch Pool exhibit that allows visitors to touch live bamboo sharks. Bamboo sharks are considered harmless to humans and the aquarium hopes to educate visitors about sharks through interaction. And finally, the Pacific Reef Display features living corals, giant clams, anemones, cardinal fish, hawk fish, clownfish, wrasses, surgeonfish, and nearly a dozen other fish species.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores features many of the aquatic animals of North Carolina. Most notable among them are sand tiger sharks, a green moray eel measuring about six feet long, a goliath grouper approaching four feet, and a number of sizable nurse sharks, sandbar sharks, and various game fishes.
Most of the larger creatures inhabit the aquarium’s centerpiece exhibit, the 306,000-US-gallon Living Shipwreck. Along with hundreds of schooling fishes and other animals, they create a swirl of constant motion around a replica of U-352, a German submarine that lost a World War II battle with a Coast Guard cutter off the North Carolina coast.
The aquarium’s three river otters also have lived up to expectations of stardom. Two were named Neuse and Pungo after North Carolina rivers. Neuse and Pungo came to the aquarium when they were about a year old. Eno, the third otter, was brought to the aquarium at four weeks old after his mother was killed by a car near White Lake. Aquarists bottle-fed him until he could trade formula for fish and other solid food, and helped him learn to swim. Now he’s strong, healthy, energetic and playful. Wide viewing windows bring their playful antics and underwater agility to child-eye-level, and the lively trio enchants people of all ages.
The North Carolina Aquarium also features two hands-on exhibits: the Tidal Touch Pool, featuring a large variety of aquatic invertebrates, and Skate and Ray Encounters.
In 2010, a rare white sea turtle was brought to the aquarium for care. Nimbus, as the turtle was named, was weak and smaller than the average loggerhead hatchling. Hampered by a cleft palate, it had to be coaxed into eating. It lagged behind in growth, but eventually caught up with other hatchlings of the same age. Nimbus is on exhibit in the Tidal Waters Gallery. The turtle is something of a rock star at the aquarium.
Throughout the year, the North Carolina Aquarium offers free daily programs, including: live animal programs, animal feeding presentations, a “Live Dive!” show, puppet shows, quiz games and hands-on activities. North Carolina Aquarium also offers snorkeling, surfing classes, night treks to search for nesting sea turtles, on board collection and river cruises, kayaking and canoeing excursions, and fishing courses.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is located on the Outer Banks. Aquarium visitors are able to explore some of the state’s ecosystems and learn about the animals inhabiting them, beginning with Coastal Freshwaters and ending at the Open Ocean exhibit, also called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.
This 285,000-gallon exhibit houses the largest collection of sharks in the state, along with many species of game fishes. It also features a replica of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad that sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras in late December 1862.
Alligators, various species of turtles, fish, and the ever-popular North American river otters are featured in Wetlands on the Edge. One alligator is leucistic, meaning he has reduced pigmentation in his skin. He is mostly white with patches of brown and blue eyes, making Bleu a fitting name.
The Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center opened to the public in 2014. The STAR Center is a 3,000 square-foot expansion, allowing staff and volunteers to maintain an excellent level of care for sick and ailing sea turtles. Eight tanks along with an examination room, food prep areas, and storage greatly improved upon the original rehab center. Visitors have the opportunity to see the turtle patients through viewing windows on the tanks and hear their recovery stories from the people who help them every day. When they are fully rehabilitated, the sea turtles are released back into the wild, some with satellite transmitters to track their movements.
Touch a stingray, a white-spotted bamboo shark, or a sea star in the Close Encounters exhibit. Stroll along the educational Soundside Pier, a popular location for wedding ceremonies. The aquarium is equipped to host receptions and other special events, even underwater weddings. Open-water certified divers can participate in the aquarium Shark Dive program and get up-close and personal with sharks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit.
More than a million people visit the North Carolina Aquariums each year, some return over and over again. The magic of experiencing a whole new world in front of your eyes is an experience that won’t be forgotten.
For more information about the North Carolina Aquariums visit www.ncaquariums.com