People and Places with Pierce: The North Carolina Aquarium

PINE KNOLL SHORES, N.C. (WNCT) – For an up close and personal encounter with marine life, there’s only one place to go: the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

“They’re in awe,” said the Hap Fatzinger, the aquarium’s director. “They’re amazed. They can’t believe they can be six inches away from what they thought and perceived were these fierce and vicious sharks.”

The aquarium opened as Marine Resource Centers in 1976.

“We are a 93,000 square foot aquarium that follows North Carolina’s geography from the mountains to the sea,” said Windy Arey Kent, the aquarium’s education curator.

The aquarium has everything from otters to jellyfish to sharks to sea turtles.

“Probably one of the most popular in the aquarium is Nimbus,” said Fatzinger. “Nimbus is a loggerhead sea turtle that is without melanin so it’s a white turtle.”

“We have behind the scenes tours where people can go and get a look at what we’re doing behind the scenes to keep all of these animals healthy in our facility,” said Kent. “We also have outdoor recreation programs like stand up paddle boarding and fishing programs.”

One of the more popular activities at the aquarium is the sea turtle rescue exhibit, where you can actually pick up your own sick sea turtle, figure out what’s wrong with it, nurse it back to health, and then re-release it back into the wild.

But the aquarium’s mission goes beyond just a fun family outing.

“We want them to understand that conservation is paramount,” Fatzinger said. “It is our mission to inspire appreciation and conservation of North Carolina’s aquatic environment.”

One way they do that is by helping hundreds of turtles behind the scenes.

“We have several of these guys (turtles) that are leftovers from last year,” said Michele Lamping, an aquarist who works at Pine Knoll Shores. “We have a lot that come in, anywhere from 30 to 100. Sometimes we have 150 turtles at a time.”

They all come in as a rehab case.

“Sometimes we just have to hold them overnight,” said Lamping. “Sometimes it’s a week, a month, and then sometimes it’s one to two years. Once they’re deemed healthy, we’ll release them.”

“We are seeing a disconnect with our youth especially and nature, so we’re really trying to make that connection again,” Fatzinger said. “Getting people here and seeing these animals, we’re hoping to increase their opportunity to get out and see them and understand and appreciate them.”

“We want you to learn about them, and how you can help them once you leave,” said Kent.

Inside and out, the North Carolina Aquarium is a Crystal Coast destination you won’t want to miss.