News Column

N.C. Aquarium to undergo $4.5M renovation

September 4, 2014

By Jeff Hampton, The Virginian-Pilot

Sept. 04--MANTEO, N.C. -- A massive sand tiger shark with a mouthful of daggerlike teeth cruised slowly through the aquarium tank.

Little 4-year-old Liam Burkett stood at the glass looking up in awe at the passing predator, not a bit afraid.

"The crabs scared him," said his dad, Jason Burkett of Detroit. "Not the sharks."

Sharks are one of the more popular attractions at the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, but they soon might have competition.

A $4.5 million renovation beginning in October will add glowing columns of jellyfish, passageways made to resemble the interior of a shipwreck, and a re-created turret of the Civil War ironclad, the Monitor. The vessel sank off the Outer Banks coast.

"We want it to be surprising," aquarium Director Maylon White said. "We want to immerse the guests into the habitat."

He guided a one-person tour through the building, passionate about the coming fresh surroundings and the animals already in place. Popular attractions such as the sea turtle rescue area and the pool where children can touch hermit crabs and rays will remain unchanged.

The 62,000-square-foot facility draws about 280,000 visitors annually. This project is more about improvement than expansion, he said.

"Our goal is to make all the interior spaces better," White said.

Visitors entering the lobby will see themselves on a video screen above, mingling with virtual marine life.

Realistic canopies of trees and surrounding flora will envelop a seven-rivers section displaying wildlife of the inland swamps and marshes. Small creatures such as turtles, frogs and dragonflies will be more easy to see for small humans. Baby alligators will live near where two adults now dwell.

The three venomous snakes of the region will get larger quarters.

The water moccasin will be housed alone, while the rattler and the copperhead will continue living together with no trouble.

White, who at 61 is tall, lean and soft-spoken, began scuba diving while attending Kempsville High School in Virginia Beach.

He wanted a career that kept him close to the ocean and marine life.

"I love it," he said.

The certified scuba instructor graduated from Old Dominion University with a master's degree in oceanography and spent 26 years at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center before getting his current job in 2010.

White paused to speak to a staff member squishing as she walked in her scuba suit after a public diving show.

Near the end of the tour, he entered the dark hallway walled by the tank where numerous fish swim with the 11 sharks, the largest collection in the state.

"Try imagining this space as if it were inside a shipwreck," he said.

He described how visitors would look at the marine life through simulated broken timbers.

So why don't the toothy sharks eat the other fish?

White called husbandry curator Christian Legner into the gallery to explain. Sharks are fed fish three times a week, more than they would eat in the wild, she said.

That way, the other fish are "safe-ish" from attack.

Liam would be glad to know that.

Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159,


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Source: Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

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