North Carolina’s Aquatic Life from the Mountains to the Sea

“For the sea lies all about us…The rains that rose from it return again in rivers.”
Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us

Mountain Gallery

Feel the spray of a mountain waterfall and see stars twinkle over the cool waters of a trout pool. An important and interdependent spectrum of minnows, fishes, turtles and other aquatic life thrives in the chilly pools and fast-flowing creeks of North Carolina’s grand and ancient peaks.

Exhibits: Smoky Mountain Falls, Deep Creek, Smoky Mountain Trout Pool

New! Mountain Motion Pool – a virtual experience

Piedmont Gallery

Man-made lakes, golf course ponds, introduced species and the unforeseen consequences – marks of the human hand reshaping the environment – are everywhere evident in the densely populated Piedmont. Three river otters named Neuse, Pungo and Eno help tell the story of how people drove these playful aquatic mammals to the brink of extinction, and brought them back again.

Exhibits: River Otters, Rocky River, Falls Lake Reservoir, Fairway Pond

Coastal Plain Gallery

The prehistoric looks of longnose gar create a sense of timeless mystery in a cypress swamp. American alligators rule the realm of sluggish blackwater rivers and streams represented by a Croatan creek. A confederation of turtles share the waters dammed by beavers. Even an ordinary highway ditch reveals an aquatic wonderland.

Exhibits: Beaver Dam Creek, Croatan Creekbank, Roadside Wonders, Cypress Swamp, 10-foot mounted American Alligator

Tidal Waters Gallery

The rhythm of the tide governs an intricate web of life in North Carolina’s vast sounds and estuaries. Make personal contact with saltwater creatures at the Tidal Touch Pool and Skate and Ray Encounters. Beneath the restless waves of Beaufort Inlet, bonnethead sharks, sea turtles, drum and other animals congregate around the 18th century shipwreck thought to be the pirate Blackbeard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge. Don’t miss Nimbus, the rare white loggerhead, in the sea turtle hatchling exhibit.

Exhibits: Queen Anne’s Revenge, Bogue Sound Salt Marsh, Oyster Rock Reef, Soundside Dock, Skate and Ray Encounters, Tidal Touch Pool, Seahorses, Loggerhead Odyssey, Sea Turtle Hatchlings.

Ocean Gallery

Fearsome sand tiger sharks, huge green moray eels and hundreds of fishes glide around a replica of the sunken World War II German submarine in the Living Shipwreck. A kaleidoscope of brilliantly hued fish contrast with the rusty Wreck of the Caribsea.  A small sampling of the ocean’s other amazing animals include moon jellies, octopus, lobsters and a beautiful and venomous newcomer to the Atlantic ecosystem, lionfish.

Exhibits: Living Shipwreck, Wreck of the Caribsea, Octopus, Lobster, Lionfish, Moon Jellies, Sea Nettles, Hardbottom Ledge

Special Features: In the  Sportfishing Gallery, exhibits highlight North Carolina’s sportfishing tradition. Fish Tales, a full-sized replica of a sportfishing boat transom, doubles as a teaching station! Across from the Gift Shop, a Giant Hermit Crab has a place for your face!

Sea Turtle Rescue – Experience what it’s like to work with ill or injured sea turtles with hands-on activities.

Don’t go yet! There’s more outdoors!

Marsh Boardwalk and Overlooks – Two viewing platforms offer picture-perfect scenes of herons and egrets feeding in the marsh. The overlooks and the boardwalk that connects them are accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. Look for directional signs to outside doorway after touring the Piedmont Gallery. Re-entry is via the same doorway.

Snakes: Hidden Inhabitants of the Maritime Forest - Take a short detour off the Marsh Boardwalk and get a close look at some of North Carolina’s venomous reptiles.

Alice G. Hoffman Nature Trail - This easy half-mile loop trail leads into the woods off the Marsh Boardwalk. Aquarium admission required.
Heron between

Theodore Roosevelt Nature Trail - A mile-long loop adjacent to the parking lot, the Roosevelt trail winds through maritime forest and along the banks of Bogue Sound and its tidal creeks and marshes. Aquarium admission not required.

Fossil Hunt -Take a trip back in time and maybe take home a souvenir from the Aquarium’s Fossil Hunt, to your left after you exit. Enjoy your search for bones, teeth, shells, coral and other fossils from ancient sea beds dating back 20 million or so years. The fossil-bearing soil comes from nearby PCS Phosphate Company in Aurora and contains a wide variety of relics from the Miocene Epoch and earlier periods.  Look for shark teeth, bat ray mouth plates, sea urchin spines, fish vertebrae, coral, scallops, oyster drills, clam shells and porpoise teeth. Most of the specimens are small, so sift carefully to see what treasures you might unearth. And, best of all, you get to keep your find. The Fossil Hunt is free with admission.