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Thursday, February 6, 2014

Zoo Review: South Carolina Aquarium

Overlooking beautiful Charleston harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium is one of the nation’s newest public aquariums.  It is easily one of the most gorgeous.  On my first visit, I intended to only spend an hour or so – I had other plans for the day, and knowing that the aquarium (mostly) featured native species, I figured it wouldn’t take too long to give it a once over.  Instead, I spent more than twice as long as I intended, and was only left when I absolutely had to for a prior commitment.  

Even then, I kind of wanted to sneak back….

Many aquariums are like underwater art galleries – dark hallways, carpeted floors, hushed tones.  The South Carolina Aquarium, in contrast, was full of light, energy, and movement.  I have rarely visited an aquarium where I have not only seen so many animals, but also had so much fun.  From the great ocean tank which dominates the building to its marsh aviary, overlooking the harbor, I felt the aquarium was a treat to explore.  The single deviation from the native wildlife theme was found on the ground floor, where a gallery houses changing, traveling exhibits – when I visited, Madagascar was the themed display, with lemurs, frogs, snakes, and crocodiles featured.  Past exhibits have featured penguins and Amazon wildlife.

The Great Ocean Tank – two stories tall, 385,000 gallons of water, is the aquarium’s main exhibit.  Sharks and loggerhead turtles mill around divers during feeding demonstrations, which visitors can observe from rowed seating or overlooking balconies.  The second floor features more sea creatures – flounder, crustaceans, sea horses.  It also tip-toes into the state’s terrestrial ecosystems, exploring the importance of water to these habitats.  Bald eagles, river otters, and a host of native herps round out the collection.  This is the south, so of course there is an alligator exhibit – and what an alligator!  A beautiful, ghost-white giant lurks in a darkened enclosure, bobbing at eye level with visitors.  I normally eschew albinos and other color mutations, but ever since I saw my first one two decades ago, white alligators have always affected me. 

The second floor is also home to what I consider one of the most stunning aquarium exhibits I have ever seen.  The Salt Marsh Aviary implies the presence of birds, but it’s easy to overlook them in favor of the exhibit’s other occupants.  The walkway through the exhibit winds between open-topped tanks, swarming with stingrays and diamondback terrapins.  Visitors can purchase cups of chopped fish to feed the rays.  If you do happen to look up and notice the birds, you’ll be treated to a variety of gulls, ibises, herons, and gallinules.  Probably the coolest thing about this aviary is that its windows look out over the harbor, so you see wild birds flying by in the background – very closely.  I had a hard time telling if the gulls and pelicans that passed by were exhibit birds or wild ones.  Outside the aviary, a touch tank features horseshoe crabs and other marine creatures.

Two things impressed me immensely about the South Carolina Aquarium.  The first was the onsite conservation program.  Like many aquariums, this one devotes considerable resources to marine animal rescue and rehabilitation, especially sea turtles, in this case.  About 100 turtles have been processed by the Sea Turtle Hospital and returned to the wild, a great success story. 

What astonished me most of all, however, was the volunteer program.  It seemed that everywhere I turned, there were teenaged volunteers – and this was during a weekday, in the middle of the day, in the school year!  They were handling herps for demonstrations, manning the touch tank, assisting with keeper talks, or just patrolling the building to make sure guests could find someone if they needed help with anything.  When I questioned a few of them, they all seemed very knowledgeable and polite, and told me that it was part of a school program that allowed them to intern here.  What a great opportunity to get young people involved in conservation and education, and what a tremendous difference I saw them making in the experiences of so many visitors.  

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