Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Yesterday Julia and I took an impromptu field trip to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. By impromptu, I mean that I'd wanted to go for several months, but just decided on Saturday. Another homeschooling perk is that kind of flexibility.

The day was chilly and rainy. We caught the 8:15 ferry and drove out to Atlantic Beach -- I love the drive to the beach. It reminds me of happy times last summer. The aquarium had few visitors, mostly mommies with little children. We could easily wander and participate in all the exhibits, over and over. Very nice. This facility is new, beautiful, exciting, and well-staffed. Adult tickets are $8. Next time I'll contact them ahead of time and use my once-a-year school pass to get us in for free.

Out front -- a fish school sculpture
The facility is kept entirely in low light, I guess for the good of the creatures who live there. I had to set my horrible camera to its "low light" setting, so these photos are grainy.
 The exhibits take you through North Carolina, from mountains to piedmont to coast, examining water life in all these areas. They begin with a high waterfall -- lovely, but we've seen the real thing so many times on the road up to Highlands that we could pass this with a light shrug and keep going.
They even attempted some fake rhododendron.
 My absolute favorite exhibit was the otters. They're kept in a massive tank with two large windows, as you see. The 3 male otters were playful and interactive. They'd stop to look at you, putting their paws on the glass. They whipped and flipped and dived and were highly entertaining. Two comfortable benches allow you to sit and watch them to your heart's content.
 Some scary large mountain fish:
 Several tanks of salamanders. I wasn't convinced this large one was real, until Julia pointed out his throat, that it was moving as he breathed. Their tanks had little white crickets throughout, for them to eat.
 Oh -- here's an otter pic, the only good one I got of an otter face.
 The other pictures looked more like this:  a flash of silky brown fur!
 There were many turtles. Below is a whopping snapping turtle. He watched me for many minutes. It's odd to see big turtles with all their appendages extended fully.
 And alligators --
 Julia and I attended a "Creature Class" in one of the big rooms. The instructor taught us a lot about crocodiles and alligators. I must say, I was shocked and horrified when she extended the tape measure across the floor and showed us how long a full-sized salt-water crocodile from Africa grows to be.  It was a little terrifying. Julia got to touch the baby alligator the lady brought out to show us. Julia thought him adorable and named him Binky.
 I spent a bit of time at the open, shallow tank for the rays. An informative, chatty attendant stood there and taught us so much. You may touch the rays; their stingers have been removed. These are the bullnose stingrays. They were very friendly. (They were hungry.) So they came up to us and even stuck their little faces above the water. So fun! I stroked their backs with two fingers. One of them splashed at me, and I squealed.
 Another darker ray that didn't approach as often.
 I've long loved seahorses. The combination of cuteness and armoured primeval antiquity is so compelling. These two curled their tails around one another.
The largest exhibit, and largest tank, holds a full-sized replica of a German U-boat, plus 306,000 gallons of sea water. The aquarium is fortunate to be located so close to the ocean; their salt water is pumped from there, which is better for the animals and much cheaper for the aquarium. Sea water is evidently expensive to replicate.
Anyway, twice each day they have a "live dive" in this gargantuan tank. Two divers are in the tank and one attendant stood with us outside, looking in through a wall-sized window. He had a microphone, and we could talk with and hear a female diver in the tank. She's on the left, below.
 She was friendly, happy, informative. I, however, enjoyed watching her partner, a larger man. She told the little children about how nice the fish are, now sweet the sharks are. Meanwhile, her partner kept his focus, his whole body, riveted on one creature -- a tiger shark about 6 feet long (at least). I'm sure he is well-fed, and generally tame, but that fellow in the tank was taking no chances. His eyes tracked that tiger shark as it circled them slowly, and he didn't take his attention off it until it had receded into the darkness on the other side of the wreck.
These fish are huge -- it's hard to tell in the photo -- probably 3 feet long each?
 The lady diver insisted that the sticks they held were not for fending off an attacking shark. Quite the contrary, she said the tiger shark was swimming in a kind of daze, a somnolent state, and they held the sticks to keep the shark from bumping into the wreck and hurting itself. Hmm. Not buying that. If that were true, the beefy diver would have been following the shark around the tank, protecting it from all protrusions and hard surfaces. He didn't. That shark could have bumped into whatever, on the back side of the wreck, for all he cared. He was protecting the lady diver, clearly. They just didn't want to scare the little children with the truth.
So:  do we teach children lies about animals, to keep them from being afraid? The aquarium wants 2 year olds to see and experience tiger sharks. Very well. They want the kids to see divers at work. They want to push the edge of reality, for the learning experience of the little humans, so they love nature. However, there's no excuse for this misinformation. I told Julia the truth: sharks are dangerous. The man was there to protect the woman (and himself). Sharks are usually non-violent with humans, but they're unpredictable. Go watch Youtube if you doubt this.
 I do prefer otters! Below: the lady diver plays with the babies, while the diver behind her watches the sharks circling. It makes me slightly squeamish to think about it.
 The stripey fish is a sheepshead.
 Many of the fish seemed quite large, so plump and round.
 With a tank that large, it's easy to be under the shark and get a photo of his mouth, just to remind yourself that he's a predator.
 This huge tank has 3 viewing locations -- the large teaching window, but then two smaller windows where you can see the back of the wreck also.
The lionfish has attracted lots of attention. It is not native to our U.S. shores, but has become an invasive species. People released them into the waters around Florida from their private collections, and they are taking over in some areas and presenting a danger to native fish. Quite impressive to look at.
 Large lobsters and crabs had their own tanks too. We enjoyed learning a lot about horseshoe crabs, but I got no photos of them. There are many exhibits and events I can not cover here.
 The third viewing window into the big tank exhibit is tall and curved -- like standing in a tall, raised alcove, except the wall is a curved window. It gives the effect of standing inside the tank.

 This is the best shot I got of the U-boat replica.
 Good-bye, little fishes, until next time!
 We took the ferry home, with our own local aquarium flowing inexorably beneath us. All the animals we saw are indigenous to our area. The North Carolina coast is a marine biologist's dream with over 500 shipwrecks that attract so much marine life. How many cute sea horses, horseshoe crabs, sting rays, and tiger sharks pass under our ferry?
One aquarium worker told me about Mary Lee, a 16-foot great white shark who calls our Atlantic coast her home. She travels from Massachusetts to Florida, and has spent some time in the Pamlico Sound. You can track her travels online.


  1. MK, you should also check into Aurora which is "somewhere" near y'all. It's an amazing site to visit although quite difficult to get into. I believe it's the largest open pit phosphate mine in the world.
    http://www.aurorafossilmuseum.com/ this museum showcases some of the "stuff" found in the pit.
    this is the company:

  2. Thank you, Sandra! I had heard of the fossil museum there, and was planning, eventually, to get over there with Julia. I'd also heard of the potash plant -- everyone around here knows it's there, because their barges go up and down the river all the time. Big place, big employer in the area. I didn't know you could go there on a tour or something. That would be a VERY interesting field trip!

  3. Hi there,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Pine Knoll Shores to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!


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