The N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher is among the top 10 aquariums in the country, according to a USA Today poll. Voters ranked the state’s aquariums No. 7 nationwide in USA Today’s Readers’ Choice Award for best aquariums.
“This distinction means we are accomplishing what we set out to do, from making a personal connection with our guests to providing expert care for animals,” said Aquarium Director Hap Fatzinger in an email. “We have long been a leading attraction in the state. Now our team’s dedication to the visitor experience and saving animals locally and globally is being recognized across the country.”
Fatzinger added that all of the aquarium’s features combine to make a lasting impression, not just on visitors, but on the community too. For example, with area sea turtle nesting season underway, the aquarium is working once again to help save the marine animals from extinction.
The aquarium also contributes to the community through its educational services. Each year, thousands of school childern are hosted, and aquarium educators provide outreach programs, day camps and more.
Meanwhile, the Kure Beach attraction is planning for improvements with a long-term $20 million expansion plan. The aquarium’s last renovation was in 2002 and cost $17.5 million.
Then, the aquarium’s size increased from 32,000 square feet to 92,000 square feet.
“At this stage, we continue to plan for improvements to the aquarium that will ultimately enhance the visitor experience and advance our mission as an education and conservation organization,” Fatzinger explained. “The last expansion of the aquarium occurred 17 years ago – in that time more than 6 million people have visited, including hundreds of thousands of the state’s school children, who visit for free.”
Backing for the potential project hasn’t been secured yet, but Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover) filed House Bill 461, which seeks to appropriate $10 million for the renovation project.
“Ultimately, our hope is a significant level of support may come from a one-time capital appropriation and be matched by admission receipts and private funding to be raised by the N.C. Aquarium Society through a capital campaign,” said Fatzinger. “When and if funding is approved, potential expansion or renovation remains several years away.”
Admission receipts are integral to the aquarium’s operations. Last year, it hosted more than 482,000 visitors.
“Our team welcomed nearly half that number in June, July and August alone,” Fatzinger noted.
Aquarium officials expected to break its record of 484,118 visitors, set in 2017, but Florence got in the way.
“The aquarium was on track to break all previous visitation records, with expected year-end attendance to top 500,000,” explained Fatzinger. “Unfortunately, Hurricane Florence impacted our community and that trajectory, slowing visitation significantly in the months that followed.”
Florence largely spared the aquarium structurally when the storm made landfall near Wrightsville Beach on Sept. 14. The aquarium, however, was forced to close for a 13-day stretch (Sept. 11-23).
“Yet, we finished the year focused on strong community commitment,” said Fatzinger. “Our annual Trick or Treat Under the Sea event, and partnership with the Lower Cape Fear Hospice Festival of Trees, created memorable experiences for thousands.”
With the area’s summer travel season underway, officials are expecting visitor numbers to increase in the months ahead.
“The team is prepared for a strong summer season sharing the wonders of the aquarium with first-time visitors and loyal returning guests,” Fatzinger said.
The otters are coming
The N.C. Aquarium also expects to break ground on a new exhibit later this year. Construction will start on a 3,000-square-foot Asian otter habitat soon and is expected to last five months.
Originally slated to open in 2019, the start of work on the otter exhibit was delayed nearly a year because of high demand for construction trade firms in the wake of Florence.
Private donations, the N.C. Aquarium Society and aquarium receipts will fund the $1.2 million project, officials said.