"Do you want to touch the alligator?" the museum guide asked my friend, 10-year-old Anna Grace, as we entered the South Carolina Aquarium
Anna Grace looked incredulously from the baby alligator held in the woman's hands to her father to the museum guide and back to the alligator again. She looked at her dad one more time, in what appeared to be disbelief.
"Go ahead," he said. "You really can touch it."
And with that she brushed her fingers across the the brown reptiles's back, while his yellow beady eyes stared and his teeth, clamped shut, seemed to grin. Her eyes widened.
By the time we wandered our way upstairs and to the Touch Tanks full of sea stars, sting rays and sea urchins, all signs of hesitation were gone. Anna Grace confidently plunged her hands into the tank and turned around holding a hermit crab the size of a baseball, with a grin as big as that baby alligator's.
The motto at the aquarium seems to be "Yes, you can touch!" And this summer, they've added lots of hands-on experiences, interactive displays and programming that allow children (and adults, too) to experience sea life in ways most of us never have before.
Animal ambassadors, such as turtles, snakes and alligators, (and their human handlers) wander the main hall, waiting for visitors to come meet them in the Animal Encounters program. Museum guides wait with giant humpback-whale rib bones and owl pellets for people to explore up close.
Through the aquarium's Discovery program, kids can peer through microscopes and see the amazing diversity of sea life scooped up from the waters right around the aquarium's pier. The day we were there, we saw sea squirts. True to their name, the microscopic creatures filled with water and squirted it out in a tiny blast, unseen except through the microscope lens.
The museum has 10 public programs or shows
per day. Three of those programs are dive shows, in which a volunteer diver in full scuba gear goes into the giant Great Ocean tank and swims around with the creatures, all while wearing a head set and interacting with the audience. We saw "The Dr. Gill Show," and the kids in the audience were all laughing, asking questions, cheering, and seemed to be generally having a great time.
My favorite exhibit was the Salt Marsh
, outside on a gorgeous patio overlooking Charleston Harbor. You can buy shrimp to feed to the sting rays. The gentle rays (don't worry; their barbs have been clipped) swim right up to the edge of their glass tank and flap their bodies up the sides, waiting to grab a treat.
The interactive, tactile theme is carried over into the great 4D movies
the aquarium is showing this summer. "National Geographic's Sea Monsters" and "SpongeBob SquarePants: The Great Jelly Rescue!" come to life with bubbles, gusts of air, and rumbling seats as you watch the films.
So the next time you're at the beach and looking out at the vast water stretching all the way to Portugal, wonder what's swimming around in there. The S.C. Aquarium will not just let you see some of that sea life, but touch it with your own fingers as well.
The S.C. Aquarium is located at 100 Aquarium Wharf in Charleston. This summer, it's open everyday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $24.95 for adults, $14.95 for children up to age 12, and free for children 3 and younger. The 4D movies cost extra.
Touch the animals, and ask their names. We petted a snake named Ron Burgandy, named after the Will Ferrell character in the Anchorman movies. You also can book a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium’s Sea Turtle Hospital
, which is fascinating (more to come on this in upcoming weeks.)