Up Close & Coastal

Unveiling baby sharks, swimming with sharks, sea turtle rehab… Enjoy the wonders of the coast as the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island helps us get up close and coastal in this 30-minute special.

ROANOKE ISLAND — The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is one of three state aquariums located along the coast. One is in Pine Knoll Shores, another is at Fort Fisher and the third is located in Manteo on Roanoke Island.

To understand the mission of the aquariums, a person only needs to know this fact: North Carolina's Outer Banks region is comprised of more water than land. In fact, North Carolina has roughly 300 miles of ocean coastline. If you add in the state’s estuaries and sounds, the coastline swells to more than 12,000 miles. And it is safe to say there is a world of aquatic life most beach visitors never get to see.

“We try to get our visitors up close to as many types of sea creatures as possible,” explains Maylon White, Director of the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island. “Not just the sharks and sea turtles, which are the ocean dwellers everyone talks about, but also the red drum, the snapper, the jellyfish, the otters, the alligators and as many creatures as possible. Just seeing the inhabitants of the state’s freshwater areas as well as the oceans is a learning experience. Reading the information panels near the exhibits adds to the learning.”

The centerpiece of the Aquarium is the 285,000-gallon Open Ocean, or Graveyard of the Atlantic tank. Inside the tank is a 1/3 scale replica of the USS Monitor, a Civil War ironclad that sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1862. The room is dark, lit only by the lights of the tank. So as visitors stand in front of a 35-foot long window, they get the feeling they are hundreds of feet underwater watching ocean life pass by. The exhibit features a nurse shark along with sand tiger and sandbar sharks as well as dozens of other large game fishes.

“Because we are on Roanoke Island, roughly 10 miles from the ocean, we can’t pump ocean water here,” explains Beth Wilcox, Special Activities Coordinator in the Education Department of the Aquarium. “Plus we don’t want to be piping in any bacteria or pollutants from the ocean or sound, so we make our own ocean water. That way we can make sure the water chemistry is just right.”

And if you’re wondering why the sharks don’t eat the other fish in the tank, it turns out they sometimes do.

“We have created a mini eco-system in the tank and sometimes the big fish eat the little fish,” explains Wilcox. “However we feed the sharks and the rest of the tank dwellers three times per week so they are pretty content.”

The aquarists who care for the sharks got quite a shock in August 2015 when they found two baby sandbar sharks in the tank. The animals weighed about three pounds each.

“We had our suspicions when the female shark started to get bigger and eat much more than normal,” says aquarist Britt Purtee. “Plus the sharks had reached 12 years old, which is when they reach mating age and they had been exhibiting mating behavior. But you just never know when something like this will happen.”

While sandbar sharks are not endangered, all species of shark are classified as “of concern” throughout the world. The birth of two sharks in captivity is quite an accomplishment for the Aquarium.

The baby sharks are quarantined so they can grow and get stronger. Also, quarantine keeps them from being eaten by other animals in the main tank. The isolation tank also allows the newborn sharks to grow accustomed to feeding from handlers and to being examined by veterinarians. When the baby sandbar sharks reach about 10 pounds each at about a year old, they will either be sent to other aquariums in the state or returned to the Open Ocean exhibit.

While sharks are classified as “of concern,” many species of sea turtles are endangered, which is why the Aquarium’s newest attraction, the STAR center, is so important. STAR stands for Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation. The 3000-square-foot facility opened in June 2014, and provides staff and volunteers with holding tanks and treatment facilities to care for sick and injured sea turtles. There are eight tanks, which can be divided to provide care for additional turtles if needed. In addition, the center is equipped with an examination room and food preparation areas.

“Life guards and beach patrols sometimes find injured turtles and bring them in,” says STAR Center Director Rosemary Lucas. “Many times people walking the beach call us when they come upon a turtle. There is also a volunteer network of residents who keep watch for turtles and turtle nests that spot injured turtles as well. People know turtles are beautiful and endangered and they want to help them.”

Once the sea turtles are fully rehabilitated, they are released back into the wild. Sometimes the turtles are outfitted with satellite tracking devices so researchers can track their movements.

It’s science mixed with tourism, and the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is one of the state’s top tourist attractions.

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