Pine Knoll Shores Aquariums
The last stop on the aquarium tour is at the southern end of New Hanover County, nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher is found here, just south of Carolina Beach at Fort Fisher. Coming from Brunswick County, take a relaxing ride across the river on the Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry. The aquarium is less than 5 minutes north of the ferry terminal. As you walk up to the aquarium, your first stop for a family photo will be in front of another bronze sculpture of a school of fish. The aquarium will be your backdrop and a perfect way to take home a memory.
Upon entering this aquarium, you will stroll through a fresh water exhibit, this one called the "Cape Fear Conservatory." It is also an atrium with live trees and grasses, and the tanks are opened at the top so you can look through the glass or peer over the top and look down through the water. The fish in these tanks are from the surrounding Carolina bays of fresh water and the exhibit includes a small waterfall, along with a few free roaming ducks. Again, you will pass by the alligators, much larger than you have seen at the other two aquariums, as they lay in wait for their Saturday afternoon feeding. Be at this location before 3:00 p.m. if you want to get up close to watch. This area is small and gets crowded quickly.
Next, you will enter the "Coastal Waters" displays. Here, you will learn about the marsh lands that make up so much of the North Carolina coastline. Upon reading the display boards, you will learn interesting facts; for example, that the marshes are our first line of defense when a hurricane hits. They absorb some of the winds and slow down the water surges that can cause so much damage. You will also find interesting information such as the fact that 90% of all commercially important fish species spend at least part of their life in the salt marsh. Also in this section of the building, there is a touch tank with sting rays and horseshoe crabs. Visitors will find themselves coming face to face with pre-historic crabs that still live in today's coastal waters.
Another exhibit is an enormous tank, this time featuring the "Cape Fear Shoal." Inside this 235,000 gallon tank is a replica of the coral formations found 20 miles off the coast. The tank holds approximately 180 different animals from 37 different species. As you watch the tank's inhabitants swim past you, television monitors show pictures of the fish and identify them so you know exactly what you are looking at. The monitors also give interesting facts about the operation of the tank. Learn things such as: the tank contains 35 tons of raw salt and that all the water is filtered constantly at a rate of 2,000 gallons per minute. These 180 some fish will eat 167 pounds of food every week. Also, daily, two scuba divers go into the tank and talk to the audience. They tell facts about the fish in the tank and then take audience questions. Children of all ages will enjoy being part of this daily activity.
Wander away from this large tank and find yourself entering the "Ocean Gallery." In the entrance, you will feel as though you are underwater and looking up to find a school of mackerel swimming around you. This beautiful sculpture of the fish is stationary, but gives the impression that the fish actually swimming, as the fish in the sculpture are in an S formation. Their coloring gives the observer the sense that the sun is reflecting off the fish, even though there are no windows in this section of the aquarium. Inside this exhibit, one can view fish that are seldom seen, including an octopus. In another tank, there is a replica of a sunken blockade runner vessel. The actual ship is located on the bottom of the Atlantic less than a mile off the coast where the aquarium is located.
Probably the second most fascinating exhibit in this aquarium is the life size sculpture of a humpback whale and her baby. Salt, the mother, is the most photographed whale in the wild. She passes by the aquarium twice a year on her journey from the Caribbean to the coast of Maine and back. Salt is 47 feet long and her baby, Salsa, is about 5 months old and 16 feet long. The display boards under this sculpture allow the observer to follow Salt's movements through out the year, season by season.
If sharks are what interest you, all you need to do is turn around and you will be face to face with multiple shark jaws. These replicas show you the teeth and jaws of sharks such as the bull shark, nurse shark, mako shark and more. Upon leaving the aquarium, you can head over the dunes on the pathway and test your memory of the different types of shark's teeth you saw by searching for your own in the sand along the water's edge. The difference, remember, is the teeth that you find will be black because they have fallen out of the shark's mouth and "died," so they are no longer white. The jaws and teeth in the aquarium are reproductions so they will always be white.
If you are not up for the short walk to the beach but want some fresh air before hitting the gift shop, you can walk along the boardwalk through the gardens. There are also picnic tables outside where you can sit and enjoy a cool drink or quick rest. Of course, don't forget to visit the gift shop. You may want to purchase a postcard that shows the different types of shark's teeth so you can show your friends the teeth you found and tell them what type of shark it came from.