There are dozens of great zoos, aquariums, petting zoos, farms, tours and other types of animal experiences in South Carolina. But there are some animal encounters that are so iconically South Carolina that they deserve their own list.
1. The Myrtle Beach Safari
Imagine spending a day cuddling with baby tigers and wolf pups, playing with baby chimpanzees, sharing treats with an elephant, and watching some of the biggest, strongest, and fastest big cats in the world run and swim. That's the kind of experience visitors have at the Myrtle Beach Safari tour at T.I.G.E.R.S. in Myrtle Beach. A full-day tour at their animal preserve, meeting their "animal ambassadors," is an experience like no other in the world.
2. Dolphins feasting behind a shrimp boat
Dolphins leaping in the waves and rugged little shrimp boats putting out to sea are two of the sights you're almost sure to see on a trip to the South Carolina coast. What more iconic South Carolina animal encounter could there be than to combine the two? Sea Thunder out of North Myrtle Beach heads out to sea, bouncing on the waves to follow the dolphins that follow the shrimp boats. On the trip we experienced, we saw hundreds of dolphins and birds following the shrimp boats, gorging themselves on the tasty morsels left behind.
3. Strand feeding dolphins
Following a shrimp boat is not the only way to see dolphins in South Carolina. If you're hoping to see strand feeding, a rare dolphin hunting behavior only seen in South Carolina and Australia, then head down to the grassy marshes of the Sea Islands. A dolphin tour in a Zodiac, or hard-bottomed inflatable raft, will let you get back into the shallow, narrow tidal creeks where very small groups of dolphins force schools of fish up onto the muddy banks. The behavior is so rare that it cannot be guaranteed that you'll see it on a tour, but the only place you have a chance to see it is right here in South Carolina.
4. A tour of a sea turtle hospital
Sea turtles are another beloved animal inhabitant of South Carolina's oceans. You can get an incredible, up-close look at the turtles and at the people who work tirelessly to save injured sea turtles at the South Carolina Aquarium's Zucker Family Sea Turtle Recovery Center. What started as a makeshift sea turtle hospital in the basement has become a world-renowned center you won't want to miss.
5. Sea turtle release
So what happens to the turtles that the hospital saves? They get released back to the wild in a joyful event any animal lover in South Carolina should not miss-a sea turtle release! Together with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the South Carolina Aquarium hold turtle releases when one (or several) of their hospital patients is ready to return to the wild. It is a remarkable, joyful event and not one to be missed. The Aquarium releases details about place and times of releases on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Learn more here.
6. A sea turtle walk
The beaches of South Carolina are where loggerhead sea turtles come to make their nests and lay their eggs. Volunteers walk the beach every morning to look for and report new nests, and to look for tracks of either mamas or babies making their way back to the sea. Learn more here.
7. Snakes dangling above you.
A place like no other, where snakes rule the roost. Literally. There are snakes dripping from the trees at the Edisto Island Serpentarium. It's like nothing else you'll ever see.
8. A flight demonstration
At the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, a team of skilled professionals treat and release injured birds, specifically raptors, like hawks, eagles, owls and falcons. They also clean and rehabilitate shore and sea birds trapped in oil spills. Not all their bird patients can return to the wild, though. You can visit those who remain, and if you plan your visit for the right day, you can experience an incredible flight demonstration, where owls will silently fly right over your shoulder and falcons will dive at dizzying speeds right in front of you.
9. Koalas at Riverbanks Zoo
There are permanent koala exhibits at only a handful of zoos in the US. Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, SC is one of them. Come visit the sleepy koalas as they relax in their eucalyptus-filled enclosure. If you're lucky-very lucky-you just might get to see them move around. Usually, though, they'll look at you with eyes half-closed as they much on their favorite leaves, nestled in their tree branches. Yes, they are as adorable as you imagine.
10. See one of the biggest crocodiles ever recorded
If there is anyplace in the world that will make you come to love another one of South Carolina's iconic animal residents, the alligator, it is Myrtle Beach's Alligator Adventure. Hundreds of alligators live here, and you can see them eating, resting and swimming. But the star of the show is Utan, one of the largest crocodiles in the entire world.