Behind the scenes at the South Carolina Aquarium

By:Tracy Pou


If you’ve ever visited the South Carolina Aquarium, you know there’s something very special about the place. Maybe it’s the really cool exhibits that showcase exotic aquatic life, the beautiful location on the Charleston Harbor or the aquarium’s ability to bring out the kid in all of us. Whatever the reason, the aquarium is one of my favorite places. During my most recent visit, I had the amazing opportunity to go behind the scenes and experience the aquarium like never before.

First up was the water quality lab, which reminded me of high school chemistry class. Flasks, glass tubes, beakers and other equipment filled the small room, which plays a big role in the aquarium’s operations. In the lab, technicians make sure that all of the fresh and salt water brought into the aquarium is safe and healthy before it’s pumped into the various exhibits. That’s no small feat when you consider the fact that the aquarium takes in about 18,000 gallons of salt water from the local harbor and houses more than 100 tanks. Only 40 of those tanks are visible to the public. The others are behind the scenes and used to hold and sometimes quarantine new animals before they are moved into their exhibits.

After leaving the water quality lab, it was off to the kitchen, where volunteers and staff members whip up restaurant-quality food for as many as 6,000 animals. Great care is taken to make sure the animals eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and that each of them receives their own specialized meal plan. Two refrigerators and a walk-in freezer are stocked with veggies like collard greens and carrots along with various meats, including salmon, squid, mackerel and shrimp. Because the food prep area is very similar to a commercial kitchen, it’s sort of easy to forget that it’s not quite the same … that is until you glance at the meatballs for otters, fish popsicles, frozen mice and meal worms. Those delicacies definitely remind you of the kitchen’s uniqueness. In all the years that I’ve visited the aquarium, I’d never really given much thought to the food the animals ate or how it was prepared. All of that changed after my visit to the food prep area -- one really cool place. Without a doubt, the animals eat very well!

And they live well too, especially those who call the Great Ocean Tank home. You’re probably used to seeing the Great Ocean Tank from the ground or second level. However, being at the top provides a completely different experience. The tank is huge. In fact, it’s the aquarium’s largest exhibit, holding about 385,000 gallons of salt water. From the top of the ocean tank to the bottom is about 42 feet, which makes it the deepest tank in North America. More than 750 animals representing 50 different species native to South Carolina call the Great Ocean Tank home. We watched many of them splash onto the scene during feeding time.

When the feeding frenzy ended, another show began as a cast of colorful characters, ranging from red drum fish to sand bar sharks to a 250-pound Loggerhead sea turtle named Caretta, the only non-fish in the Great Ocean Tank, decided to debut for us. As Caretta made her way through our viewing area, we learned that she’s still pretty young (only 23-24 years old) when you consider the fact that sea turtles can live to be about 80 years old. And apparently she likes to nap. According to aquarium officials, she can sleep underwater for as long as two hours, leaving many visitors wondering whether she’s real and asking if she is OK. Caretta, whose name is taken from the species name for Loggerheads, is a wonderful example of a healthy and thriving sea turtle. Unfortunately, there are some that are not in such great shape. The cool thing about the aquarium is that it’s equipped to care for them either way.

After leaving the Great Ocean Tank, we visited the Sea Turtle Rescue Program. South Carolina’s state reptile, the sea turtle is a threatened and endangered species. In order to help ensure their existence in the state, the aquarium takes in sick and injured sea turtles and nurses them back to health at its state-of-the-art hospital. The facility currently houses about 19 sea turtle patients. All of the animals receive specialized treatment from a team of committed volunteers and staff members. While all of the sea turtles are special, one named Hilton has quickly become a favorite. The 94-pound Loggerhead was brought in from Hilton Head Island in mid 2010 with a number of medical problems, including anemia. Thanks to some wonderful TLC, he’s just about made a full recovery and could be released as early as this spring. Based on his actions, he seemed ready. Hilton wasn’t shy at all during our visit. He swam to the edge of the pool and reared his head to greet us several different times.

Hilton, Caretta and the thousands of other animals who live at the aquarium are what make the place super special. And you haven’t experienced the aquarium in its full splendor until you’ve gone behind the scenes to check them out.

Behind the Scenes Tours of the Sea Turtle Hospital take place Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children. That’s in addition to general admission or membership. To make reservations call, 843-577-FISH. For more information on behind the scenes tours of the water quality lab, food prep kitchen and the Great Ocean Tank, see or call (843) 579-8600.

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