The Fort Fisher Aquarium is a warm weather destination for most.
It's packed in the spring with school field trips. It's busy in the summer as families look for a quick break from the sand and sun during their beach weeks. The aquarium brings in nearly 450,000 visitors a year, including about 30,000 N.C. school kids, who get in free. TripAdvisor.com recently named it one of the top 20 aquariums in the nation.
I took my family on a blustery November day. We were bundled up with scarves, mittens and hats, and glad to escape the drizzly day as we ran inside. We had the benefit of checking out this great aquarium on a day when it wasn't packed with people.
The aquarium, one of three North Carolina aquariums, sits on Kure Beach, about 2 1/2 hours from the Triangle. The 93,000-square-foot building sits on a 23-acre site near the ocean. The signature feature is a towering, two-story, 235,000-gallon tank that includes sharks, rays, eels, fish and other aquatic creatures.
Fort Fisher features exhibits focused on the Cape Fear River to the sea. So visitors will see fresh water exhibits; learn about creatures like box turtles or eagles; and find the aquarium's popular albino alligator in the Cape Fear Conservatory. Then, there's the two-story Marine Building with the massive tank, a large touch pool, seahorses, jelly fish and other exhibits on ocean issues.
Except for one school group, we were one of a handful of families walking around the campus when we visited. We arrived just as one of the aquarium's popular daily programs - dialogue with a diver - began. Here, we watched as divers cleaned a section of the massive tank. An aquarium educator on the outside helped to answer and relay questions to the divers so we could learn more about what they were doing.
From there, we went back to the Cape Fear Conservatory to start our tour. My five-year-old especially liked watching the young eagle, which came to the aquarium a couple of years ago with an injured wing. And we caught one of the daily animal feedings. The kids loved watching the freshwater carp, striped bass and sturgeon race for the food that an aquarium staffer dumped in.
Inside the Marine Building, my nine-year-old took in the newly expanded sea turtle exhibit while my five-year-old touched nearly everything she could in the touch tank. The tank includes sea creatures like rays and crabs. Visitors can dunk their hands in the water and touch the creatures as they swim by or hang out in the sandy bottom. Her shirt sleeves were soaking by the time I pulled her away to explore the rest of the aquarium.
On the Marine Building's first floor, the kids enjoyed playing a couple of touchscreen games, including one that featured information about right whales. But, once we got down there and they saw the outdoor playground, they were ready to get outside despite the cool temperatures.
The playground, called Adventure Reef, opened in 2012 and is designed for kids ages 2 to 12. Unlike traditional playgrounds with monkey bars and slides, the playground lets kids play on pieces like springy climbing cables, spinning bars and wobble pads. My kids had a blast.
Nearby, there's a small fossil dig where visitors can find shark teeth and other items. So as the kids played and my husband searched for shark teeth, I walked the short trail that features ponds, birds, gardens and public art.
It was a morning well spent.
Fort Fisher Aquarium is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., all year. It's closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Admission is $10.95 for ages 13 to 61; $9.95 for seniors ages 62 and up and military; and $8.95 for ages 3 to 12. It's free for ages 2 and under and for N.C. Aquarium Society Members (and members of the N.C. Zoo). A gift shop and snack bar is on site.
The aquarium offers free days on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Veterans Day. There also are a host of special events, behind the scenes tours, summer camps, outdoor experiences and other opportunities offered by aquarium staff.
Coming in 2015: The aquarium will open a new, interactive Lorikeet experience. Guests will enjoy hand feeding the tropical birds featuring dazzling color combinations. The temporary, seasonal exhibit opens in April.
Also, the aquarium will host an Autism Friendly Day on Feb. 8. Special programs and activities are free with aquarium admission. A calm space will be provided where families and their kids can take a break.