Since the N.C. Aquarium at Fort Fisher last expanded 20 years ago, an estimated 10 million people have flowed through the facility’s aquatic offerings.
“This past year was our highest visitation ever,” said Hap Fatzinger, aquarium director, referring to fiscal year 2022-2023’s count of 500,000 visitors. “It’s been incredible … but the facility is in need of upgrade, improvement, updating, refreshing.”
Attractions across New Hanover County are in the same boat as the aquarium, with millions of dollars in recent or upcoming changes on their books.
The aquarium’s expansion plan, which has accumulated $50 million in state support in recent years, could include a new 350,000-gallon tank (about 115,000 gallons bigger than the existing one), a 4,000-square-foot rooftop deck and new educational facilities to accommodate more school children. While still in the design phase, officials hope the project can begin by 2025.
The aim is to do a better job, Fatzinger said, of telling conservation stories.
“People come to the aquarium to have a great experience,” he said. “They come with their family, their friends … to have an experience with live animals.”
Fatzinger said the hope is that those experiences create “a connection from our visitors to our animals, that hopefully when they leave, they take at least one thing away of how they can impact their own personal actions to help save and protect wildlife or wild places.”
To further that goal, the expansion plan includes sand tiger sharks in the new tank roaming a reproduced shipwreck habitat.
“We do a lot of hands-on research with sand tiger sharks,” Fatzinger said. “It’s a species that’s incredibly important in aquariums because they thrive in aquarium settings. They tell a great story to our visitors about sharks and the threats of humans to sharks.”
What the aquarium learns about the sand tiger sharks “may help protect and preserve the species in other areas of the world where they’re critically endangered,” he said.
Additionally, when the latest facility was designed more than 20 years ago, the plans didn’t take into account all of the aquarium visitors’ accessibility needs, from better wheelchair accommodations to rooms for those with sensory disabilities.
“One of the things we really want to do is make sure that we are accessible to our entire community,” Fatzinger said.
The state’s most recent budget allocated $30 million to the project, and officials recently signed a contract with a construction manager at risk to guide its creation.
Fatzinger said aquarium officials would “love to break ground in January of 2025,” with a construction timeline dependent on a number of factors, including the time it will take to receive specialty materials. An example: Only a few places in the world make the acrylic panels needed for the 350,000-gallon tank.