NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores sets attendance record in first year
The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores broke attendance records in its first year since reopening after a major expansion. A total of 620,288 people viewed the shipwrecks, sharks, otters, eels and other features of the new facility in the 12 months since its grand opening on May 19, 2006.
The count was a new high for the three North Carolina Aquariums, operated by the N.C. Dept. of Environment and Natural Resources. Annual average visitation at Pine Knoll Shores before the renovation was about 250,000.
The new Aquarium is three times larger at 93,000 square feet, with all new exhibits that portray “North Carolina’s aquatic life from the mountains to the sea.” It had been closed for more than two years for the $25 million project. Interest in the new facility was expected to drive attendance up.
Still, the final total exceeded projections by at least 100,000. Jay Barnes, Aquarium Director, said the numbers were gratifying.
“The Aquarium provides fun, family-oriented actvities that vacationers want when they come to the beach,” he said. “At the same time, every visitor presents an opportunity to advance our goal of conservation education.”
The three state Aquariums share a common mission: “Inspiring appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environments.” In keeping wit h that, 40,000 North Carolina students in school groups have been admitted free to the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores in the past year.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums recently re-accredited the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, as well as the Aquariums at Fort Fisher and on Roanoke Island.
Since opening day, the Aquarium has continued to add animals from all over the state. The collection has increased to 200 spe cies and 3,100 specimens.
Many of the animals also have grown in size. Notable among them are a sand tiger shark nearly nine feet long, 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 popular centerpiece exhibit, the 306,000-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. The German submarine lost a World War II battle with a Coast Guard cutter off the North Carolina coast in 1942.
The Aquarium’s two river otters also have lived up to expectations of stardom. With the help of the public, the two were named Neuse and Pungo after North Carolina rivers. Wide viewing windows bring their playful antics and underwater agility to child-eye-level, and the lively pair enchants people of all ages.
The new Aquarium quickly acquired a reputation for romance. Its unusual aquatic ambience – and controlled climate – has made it a popular setting for wedding ceremonies, rehearsals and receptions. The Aquarium has hosted dozens of other social and community events as well.
The Aquarium is preparing for another busy summer. An environmental quiz game, a variety of hands-on activities and puppet shows begin the week of June 1, all free with admission. This is in addition to the free live animal programs, animal feedings and diving presentations offered year-round.
A number of outdoor adventures available for a small fee – snorkeling, surfing, night treks, onboard collection and river cruises – also begin June 1. Behind-the-scenes tours, fishing lessons, kayak and canoe explorations and other activities are already on the weekly schedule.
The facility again will stay open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays in July for themed “family nights.”
The Aquarium’s education department is recruiting more volunteers for the summer. Educators rely heavily on local volunteers to help with touch pools and other interpretive programs.
The Aquarium will begin construction this fall to increase the number of parking places by converting roadside parking from parallel to diagonal. Meanwhile, the capacity of the Aquarium’s golf cart shuttle service will be stepped up for the busy months.
“On behalf of the Aquarium staff, I want to thank our visitors, our volunteers and the community for a fantastic first year,” Barnes said. “We are looking forward to great things again this summer, and for years to come.”