Family Fun at North Carolina’s Aquariums

Family Fun at North Carolina’s Aquariums

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores features indoor and outdoor attractions

Playing in the waves may have brought you to the coast, but if you’re like many other visitors to North Carolina’s shores, you’re curious about what’s under the waves. At four spots along the coast, you can peek at life under the sea and discover the aquatic life that make North Carolina’s freshwater and saltwater ecosystems so vibrant.

With facilities like the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island and nearby Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head on the Outer Banks, the Crystal Coast’s Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium, and the Aquarium at Fort Fisher near Wilmington, you’re never far from some of the most beautiful North Carolina residents you’ll see.

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island

At the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, you’ll see more sharks in one place than you ever thought possible. Nurse, sand tiger and sandbar sharks swim through the 285,000-gallon Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit, living beside dozens of other fish. Divers pay this huge tank a visit to swim with the sharks, and if you’re an open-water certified diver, you may be able to join them. Check with the aquarium for feeding schedules of sharks and other creatures.

The aquarium on Roanoke Island isn’t just one exhibit, though. The whole aquarium will give you an idea of how water reaches the ocean from its inland tributaries, and provides a look at the creatures that call these waters home. From freshwater fish, snakes and frogs in Seven Rivers, to alligators, turtles and river otters in the Wild Wetlands, you’ll glimpse some of the more abundant aquatic life North Carolina has to offer.

One stop you shouldn’t miss is the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center, where sea turtle conservation efforts can be witnessed firsthand. In the Sea Senses gallery, get up close with stingrays, sea stars, horseshoe crabs and even tiny sharks. Aquarium staff is on hand to help you safely interact with these creatures and answer questions.

If you’re up for more of an adventure, try some of the indoor programs, like a behind-the-scenes tour; or outdoor programs, such as a kayak trip or crabbing lesson. Camps that will give kids a backstage pass to the aquarium or lead them on a marsh expedition are also available during the year.

In nearby Nags Head, Jennette’s Pier offers summer camps, classes and fishing lessons for kids, and even Parent’s Night Out evening programs.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

When you walk into the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, you're greeted by a three-story indoor waterfall. The waterfall introduces you to the layout of the aquarium, which takes you from the mountains through to the ocean, stopping to visit hundreds of animals along the way.

The river otter exhibit is always popular, as is the Tidal Touch Pool, but you may have a hard time deciding which exhibit is your favorite because the Living Shipwreck and the sea turtle exhibits are fantastic. Living Shipwreck features a 60-foot long viewing window and the sea turtle exhibit is the home of Nimbus, a rare white loggerhead sea turtle.

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher

At the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, you’ll follow the mighty Cape Fear River from its inland origins to the ocean. Along the journey you’ll meet Luna, an albino alligator, have the opportunity to touch Bamboo sharks and even learn about one of the biggest sharks that ever swam off our coast, the Megalodon.

The Megalodon was longer than a school bus, had teeth the size of a dinner plate and a jaw eight feet across. Fortunately, all that remains are fossil relics of this 2 million-year-old shark, but an exhibit including replica jaws, teeth you can touch and an interactive video display about the Megalodon gives you a feel for this massive creature.

Like the other aquariums, the Fort Fisher Aquarium features a number of camps and activities for kids and adults, including day camps, special events, scout programs and more.

Jason Frye is the author of two North Carolina guidebooks and lives and writes in Wilmington.

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