The North Carolina Estuarium is on a mission to educate

Posted May 14, 2019 5:00 a.m. EDT

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.

At first glance, the North Carolina Estuarium, located in Washington, N.C., looks like any other waterside haven for local residents. It is a modern, cleanly landscaped building, taking full advantage of the envious view with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the docks edging the Pamlico.

Once inside, however, the building gives way to the experience of the thoughtful educational exhibits and learning opportunities for those interested in the cultural history and marine life of the second largest estuary in the United States.

Little Washington is at the brackish point of the Pamlico River and Atlantic Ocean, where saltwater and freshwater converge. Combined with the charm and history of this pre-Civil War shipbuilder's city, these characteristics make Washington a unique and ideal location for a marine museum dedicated to this important natural sanctuary.

With more than 200 exhibits from artifacts to artwork, the Estuarium is really three museums in one. There is a small aquarium focused on local marine life, a cultural history and heritage museum, and a hands-on science museum, all together in one building.

Little Washington : Spotlight : North Carolina Estuarium

With three museums in one, the North Carolina Estuarium is teaching visitors about the importance of the local estuary and how they can make decisions to help preserve it. (Photo Courtesy of Washington Tourism Development Authority)

A massive sculpture in the lobby is actually an interactive map of North Carolina built out of driftwood. This sculpture was designed to allow staff and volunteers to show visitors how rain water moves through the estuary. Each presenter gets to tell their own story about the water, although popular lore suggests that the water we drink today could possibly have been Cleopatra's tears millennia ago.

Visitors then get a glimpse of the area's indigenous plants and animals before moving into an exhibit on climate science and pollution.

In the first part, they learn what is special about the estuary. In the second part, they can see what happens when the area is not properly cared for, like when invasive species are introduced to an ecosystem like the one around the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula. The hope is that visitors realize the uniqueness of the estuary and work to preserve it in the daily decisions they make.

"There are so many choices we make that impact the life of the estuary, from eating local seafoods to preserving water," said Russ Chesson, the environmental educator at the Estuarium. "We show visitors what these choices can lead to and why the estuary is important to consider when making them."

More than 75 percent of the seafood we eat at some point came from an estuary, and while estuaries are vastly productive ecosystems, they are also incredibly delicate. While the calm waters provide a safer environment for sea life than the open ocean, which allows many plants and animals to thrive there, the location of estuaries downhill means that pollution tends to accumulate there.

"The estuary is a barometer for the health of the state," Chesson explained. "It provides everything from storm abatement, to food, to nurseries for baby fish and sea life."

The Estuarium's efforts to show visitors the uniqueness of the estuary and to educate them on how they can preserve what they see is a vital mission. This mission begins with outreach to local students — the Estuarium offers field trips and educational programs based on state science standards.

The program has drawn schools from Raleigh to Hatteras for these learning experiences.

"We want to teach local students about the miracle that's in their backyard," Chesson said. "People talk about the Outer Banks and the mountains, but the space we have here at the river is beautiful. It's really a hidden gem of North Carolina."

From economic benefits and eco-tourism to educational opportunities and cultural events, Eastern North Carolina is no longer just a drive-through on the way to the Outer Banks, but an invaluable asset to the promotion of an important part of the state's—and the country's—natural resources.

This article was written for our sponsor, Washington Tourism Development Authority.