Forty Fishy Years

BY Chris Russell

Please touch the animals. Visitors to the three North Carolina state aquariums get to touch sharks stingrays soft-shell turtles horseshoe crabs or other ocean dwellers on display in the hands-on areas of each facility.

The North Carolina Aquarium system turns 40 this September and all three facilities are continuing their original calling — to educate. Originally formed as marine science centers Fort Fisher Pine Knoll Shores and Roanoke Island aquariums remain favorite field trip destinations for students as well as tourist attractions and special event venues.

“The three North Carolina Aquariums connect visitors with the natural world in an educational and engaging way ” says David Griffin the state Aquariums Division director. “In the evolution of the aquariums from Marine Science Resource Centers to the now-nationally recognized attractions they’ve become the mission and commitment to caring for our wild places has not wavered.”

The Aquariums Division was placed under the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources about seven months ago. A fourth smaller venue Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head is also part of the aquarium system and is known for its 1 000-foot concrete fishing pier. It has fish tanks in the pier house and a gift and tackle shop.

Each of the big three aquariums has the typical tanks of various sizes with fish that range from beautiful to scary. And each aquarium has something unique that makes a visit to all three worthwhile.

One aquarium is the final resting place for a member of an all-black Coast Guard unit. One was recently mentioned by NBC weather personality Al Roker for rescuing cold-stunned sea turtles. And one lets you walk through a 16th-century Spanish galleon wreck site to see the marine animals making use of their sunken home.

Visitors learn by viewing fish snakes newts spiders and more in tanks reading about their habitat interacting with trained volunteers watching live scuba divers guessing at did-you-know displays and viewing short videos that range from turtles crawling out of a boil to seahorses giving birth — that’s male seahorses giving birth. Guests also learn about the state’s ecosystems from the mountains to the ocean and quite a bit about state history.

Each aquarium offers a variety of summer camps specialty tours holiday-themed parties traveling exhibits from dinosaurs to butterfly houses and is available for some private events even weddings on the grounds or “under the sea.”

Fort Fisher Aquarium

The first animal visitors see at the Fort Fisher Aquarium about 45 minutes from downtown Wilmington is unexpectedly a bald eagle. His squeaky call can be heard as visitors enter the cavernous river and stream conservatory. He shares the space with a variety of freshwater fish and some newts and alligators.

Guests at the facility will also see and hear a sudden loud burst of mist. It can be a bit startling.

K.C. Jackson an 8-year-old from Baltimore Maryland had just passed the long-nose gar in a river-like tank when the very noisy intermittent mist shot into the air. He his sister Shakirah Smith a Marine stationed at Camp Lejeune and their mother Nakisha Jackson all jumped and screamed lightly when the mist shot out. The mist is simply used to water the tall plants in the conservatory but is lends a bit of excitement in a room that feels like a “Jurassic Park” film set.

The star of the initial exhibit is a rare white albino alligator. Jackson’s mother explains how the alligator could not adapt well to its environment since it lacks the camouflage the other alligators have. They are nearly the same color as the murky water they are lounging in.

“I like the albino alligator ” the younger Jackson says. Pointing at scratches on the tank and observing the gator’s long nails he says “I think it likes to scratch the tank.”

Inside the rooms get darker and cooler. The large two-story saltwater tank has multiple viewing areas on both floors of the aquarium. Guests can see sharks eels rays that weigh more than 100 pounds and dozens of types of fish that poke in and out of the recreated coral reef.

At feeding time an educator explains the process talks about which large animals get their food on a stick and explains why Sheldon a green sea turtle has to eat his meals inside a basket. He’s a vegetarian and is on a very strict diet.

Volunteers and staff are stationed throughout the facility to answer questions and allow visitors to pet a rotating variety of creatures. Lauren Donald a member of the education department staff oversees the experience so it is safe for people and the animals. Recently she was allowing visitors to touch a spiny soft-shell turtle.

Volunteer Gary mans a petting tank where visitors can touch a loggerhead turtle while watching a video of baby turtles scrambling out of the boil (hatching nest). As stronger turtles work their way out others are used as stepping-stones and can become buried in the sand. On a recent visit the turtle on display was one of five turtles recovered when environmentalists were excavating a nest.

“I call this one Dead Turtle Walking ” he says since it survived being trapped and abandoned in the nest chamber.

There are a lot of great photo opportunities in the aquarium but one of the most popular spots is reminiscent of the film “Jaws.” There is a replica of a 6-foot-tall open jaw of an extinct shark a Megalodon where people pose between the teeth and feign a shark attack.

One of the most mesmerizing displays is the cylindrical jellyfish tank. White ghostly jellies float against a black-lighted tank. Visitors learn that jellyfish are 98 percent water. And around the corner is a tank of colorful seahorses flittering around propelled by their tiny spiral tails.

The aquarium offers an autism-friendly day with sensory rooms tailored to individuals with autism. Some of these related activities include playing with kinetic sand water beads colored lighting smelling containers and a bird sound activity. There is also a “calm room” to give families a quiet space if needed.

New for this spring is a seasonal exhibit called “Dinosaurs!” that features animatronic beasts that spit and roar. The exhibit in the aquarium’s outdoor garden includes an intimidating Tyrannosaurus rex a 23-foot-long Brachiosaurus and four other life-sized prehistoric creatures.

Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium

Traveling from Wilmington the two-hour trip to Pine Knoll Shores on Emerald Isle includes some beautiful scenery including wonderful water views over the Bogue Sound bridges.

A two-story waterfall sets the tone — a loud splashy one — for the start of a visit. It welcomes guests into the mountains and streams section of the aquarium. This section highlights animals whose habitat is North Carolina creeks and rivers.

Among the numerous fish on display is an uncommon muskellunge the largest in the pike family with its elongated face. Its name derives from an Ojibwa Indian word meaning “ugly pike.”

Educational plaques state there are nearly 300 waterfalls in North Carolina more than 42 types of snakes and even more salamander varieties.

Other crawly creatures in this area include snakes centipedes and frogs from other countries. Guests learn about their habitats and some of the helpful discoveries for humans. The painful venom of the Vietnamese centipede is being researched as a painkiller thought to be as strong as morphine.

Poison dart frogs sport bright metallic colors and could be mistaken for a plastic toy as they sit still unblinking.

Claire Aubel PR coordinator for Pine Knoll Shores is quick to point out one difference from the other aquariums.

“We have otters ” she says with a hint of amusement.

The otters are fun to watch as they waddle dive and swim. Their viewing tank is a favorite of little children. One toddler tells his father “Doggie swim in water.” His father keeps chuckling and saying “No that’s an otter.” But it doesn’t stick. The toddler knows what he sees. It is “a doggie swimming.”

Possibly one of the most iconic aquarium scenes is the silhouettes of people watching fish and sharks swim in a 60-foot-long viewing area around a replica of the German U-352 sunk off the North Carolina coast in 1942.

“It is impressive the detail they put into the U-boat ” Aubel says. “The Living Shipwreck includes a live dive program. This part of North Carolina is known for our shipwrecks. We have big sharks in our exhibit. They look mean but their teeth are just too big they can’t close their mouths. A lot of people love them.”

One of the most popular areas is the petting tanks. Children of all ages can touch smooth stingrays (barbs removed) hard-shell mollusks nurse sharks and horseshoe crabs. There also is a display with dry shells and other treasures from the ocean. Guests can handle a seahorse skeleton sand dollars and dozens of varieties of shells.

The volunteers in these areas are eager to share fun facts about the sea creatures. The horseshoe crab for example is a true Carolina blueblood. Photos show researchers extracting their copper-based Carolina blue-colored blood for use in making vaccines free from bacteria. A CNN report states one gallon of horseshoe crab blood is worth $60 000.

Volunteers explain how the stingrays grab fish and smother them before eating them and how difficult it is to keep seahorses in captivity.

Volunteer Sheryl Woodbury says “It is hard to keep seahorses alive because they want their food alive and moving. They will just ignore fish flakes.”

Woodbury says seahorses are in the category of an “animal of concern ” not endangered but getting there. In the petting tank area there is a video that shows a male seahorse giving birth to hundreds of babies at a time.

Pine Knoll Shores has been the site of many weddings and receptions and has a lot of specialty camps kayaking lessons tours and more happening throughout the year.

“This place is awesome ” says 12-year-old Dathan Ingram from Havlock. He spent the night through a local camp about two years ago and experienced a lot of behind-the-scenes activities. “They change the lighting to simulate moonlight. We got to go to the back and help feed the fish. I love this place ” he says with all sincerity.

Outside guests can walk to two long piers to view animals in the sound and along the boardwalk to a hut that houses venomous snakes. There is also a small outdoor playground nestled in the trees.

Roanoke Island Aquarium

This facility located in Manteo North Carolina a four-hour drive from Wilmington has been closed since January undergoing a $4.5 million renovation. While inconvenient for visitors it proved to literally be a lifesaver. If it were not closed the aquarium would not have been able to house more than 350 cold-stunned sea turtles this winter. Cold-stunning is a sea turtle’s version of hypothermia and it can cause decreased heart rate and circulation leading to shock and possibly death.

Buster Nunemaker the Roanoke Island PR coordinator for more than 10 years said it was unbelievable how the community came together to help save the turtles.

“That first day January 5 we had all our medical supplies wiped out ” Nunemaker says. “Word got out and the Outer Banks Hospital immediately sent saline and syringes. Individuals came forward and donated totes and towels by the hundreds. White Cap Linen provided towels. Al Roker (the NBC weatherman) and the Weather Channel did stories on it. The community rallied.”

Turtles were placed everywhere in the facility. They included two 100-pound loggerheads and a few endangered Kemp’s ridleys but most were green sea turtles. The weakest of the turtles were placed in bathrooms.

“The heat was gradually raised day after day ” Nunemaker says. “If we had been open God only knows where we would have put all these sea turtles.”

The true drama of caring for the stunned turtles mimics one of the most popular areas of the aquarium the STAR (Sea Turtle Assistance Recovery) unit.

“A child or group come in and take a plastic sea turtle that has a microchip in it. Each turtle has a different diagnosis. They take it to a doctoring station and learn how to treat that turtle ” Nunemaker says. “After caring for them the children don’t want to give these turtles up so the gift shop started selling them.”

One of the new exhibits Sea Treasures will be a unique experience as guests walk through the interior of a Spanish galleon from the 1750s. They will be able to see through the ribs of the ship and monitors will show fish swimming overhead. Creaking noises and lanterns swinging back and forth will give the display a realistic look and feel.

Augmented reality is going to be used in the updated aquarium. Visitors will be able to stand in a specific area and see themselves “touch” animals as they swim around them. Guests will reach out and hug a seal or see penguins jumping all around.

Local history will also be part of this new medium. Settlers from the Lost Colony Sir Walter Raleigh and even Queen Elizabeth I will “interact” with guests in similar historic scenes.

Guests will also virtually experience the battle between Civil War ironclads the Monitor and the Merrimack. A gallery will have a simulated turret and guests will hear and see the battle being described. It will tie in with the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit.

RIA is already known to have the largest collection of sharks in the state and it will showcase a large number of sea jellies with its new delicate drifters gallery which will feature three floor-to-ceiling tanks.

The lobby and courtyard are undergoing major changes. There will be different stations to sign up for activities with a focal point on Captain Richard Etheridge a Union Army veteran who became the first African-American to command a Life-Saving Station.

Etheridge was the head of Pea Island Life-Saving Station for the U.S. Coast Guard. He and his company were recognized by the government for their historic and heroic rescue efforts. Etheridge and some of his family members are buried in the aquarium courtyard at the Pea Island Life Saving Station memorial.Guests will enter and exit by the graves.

“What was unique about the station were the trials and tribulations they had to go through ” Nunemaker says. “There were a lot of racial issues. It was burned on numerous occasions. The men suffered through other groups saying things about them ? well they are the only life saving station ever to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor.”

The Roanoke Island Aquarium is scheduled to be partially open in late spring and fully open by summer. Visitors can look online or call to make sure there have been no additional construction delays.