When most Outer Banks visitors think of Nags Head, they imagine a classic beach town filled with warm sunny days, crashing ocean waves, and miles of beaches, shops, restaurants and all the attractions that inherently come standard with an entertaining and well-loved vacation town.
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island has become a beloved attraction for Outer Banks vacationers and an annual outing for seasoned visitors who are young and young at heart. The 68,000-square-foot complex covers all aspects of Outer Banks aquatic life, from endangered sea turtles to common horseshoe crabs and stingrays, and everyone is invited to pop in and enjoy the fun.
An educational attraction that certainly doesn't feel like a full day of learning, the Aquarium is a must stop for vacationers who want to learn about what lies just under the surface of the ocean and sound waters bordering the Outer Banks. Be sure and bring the kids along for this family-friendly excursion, and plan on dedicating a full morning or afternoon exploring the grounds.
Touring the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
The Aquarium is one of three in the state located along the coastline that were opened to promote appreciation and conservation of North Carolina's aquatic environments. The Outer Banks region is basically comprised of more water than land, and as such, there is a world of aquatic life surrounding the islands that most beach visitors will never get to see up close. Thankfully, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island solves this problem by putting the local water-logged residents up front and center.
The Aquarium features many exhibit galleries, and each focuses on a certain aspect of the Outer Banks or local maritime culture. As a guest travels through the galleries they will dive into a new feature of the coastal world, from the critters of the mainland to the fish that live hundreds of miles offshore. Each component creates a new experience and new world, and visitors are encouraged to linger and take their time exploring every corner of the Aquarium.
As visitors stroll past the entrance, they will encounter the Coastal Freshwaters gallery, which highlights some inhabitants of the marshlands and estuaries bordering Dare and Currituck Counties. Next, guests will encounter playful river otters, various turtles, and alligators in Wetlands on the Edge. Many new visitors are surprised to learn that the Outer Banks has resident alligators, but these reptiles are usually found well off the beaches, along the warm mainland portions of Dare County.
Follow the sea turtles to the newest attraction at the Aquarium, the Sea Turtle Assistance and Rehabilitation (STAR) Center, which opened to the public in June 2014. The STAR Center is a 3,000 square-foot expansion, allowing staff and volunteers to maintain an excellent level of care for sick and ailing sea turtles. Eight tanks along with an examination room, food prep areas, and storage greatly improved upon the original rehab center. Visitors can see the turtle patients through viewing windows on the tanks and hear their recovery stories from the people who help them every day. When they are fully rehabilitated, the sea turtles are released back into the wild, some with satellite transmitters to track their movements. After learning about sea turtles at the Center, diagnose and care for a replica of an injured sea turtle in the interactive and hands-on exhibit Operation: Sea Turtle Rescue.
Close Encounters, one of the most popular areas of the Aquarium, allows visitors of all ages to get up close with two species of stingray, horseshoe crabs, white-spotted bamboo sharks, sea urchins, sea stars, hermit crabs, and more. As the animals pass by, visitors can reach out and gently touch their soft bodies or their tough rigged shells. While visitors are advised to look out for claw pinches, and are cautioned not to take the animals out of the tanks, everyone can enjoy spending some time in this room and getting a literal feel of the animals that call the Outer Banks home.
The tour ends with the Aquarium's most famous attraction, the 285,000-gallon Open Ocean, or Graveyard of the Atlantic, exhibit. Visitors can view a nurse shark, sand tiger and sandbar sharks, along with many types of large game fishes. Visitors tend to take the most time enjoying this room, viewing the largest collection of sharks in the state through a 35 foot-long glass viewing window. At the center of it all is a 1/3 scale replica of the USS Monitor, a famous Civil War ironclad which sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1862. The room is kept deliberately dark, with only the lights of the tank to illuminate the area, and as a consequence makes visitors feel like they are hundreds of feet under the sea instead of standing on Roanoke Island ground.
By the exit, visitors can stop by the gift shop, which features all things marine, with plenty of local books, toys, and shirts to go around. Outside, visitors will find a walking trail near the edge of the Croatan Sound, complete with benches and lookouts to relax and enjoy the view. There is also a fossil pit outside, where treasure hunters can dig for ancient shark teeth.
Hours of Operation and Fees of the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
The North Carolina Aquarium is open year-round, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily, and only closes on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Winter or shoulder season visitors will more or less enjoy the complex all to themselves, with only a handful of other vacationers enjoying a tour. Visitors who make the trip on a bright and sunny beach day will find the premises virtually deserted, even in the summer months. For a quiet exploration of the Aquarium, try picking a nice day when there will be fewer tourists in attendance.
Ticket booths are located near the entrance, and tickets can even be purchased in advance for a specific date online at the Aquarium's website.
Getting to the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
To get to the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, simply travel west along US 64 Business through the town of Manteo and look for the brown signs indicating the way, located just outside of the busy downtown attractions. The Aquarium is also located close to a number of other popular Manteo attractions, including the Elizabethan Gardens, the Elizabeth II, and the Roanoke Island Festival Park.
Special Programs and Events at the NC Aquarium on Roanoke Island
The Aquarium has a wide range of daily activities that are free for visitors, including daily dive shows, animal feedings, and live animal encounters. For an additional fee, guests can experience a behind the scenes tour, go crabbing on the Soundside Pier, kayak around Roanoke Island, or participate in a camp or other special activity. You can also rent the Aquarium after hours for special events, such as weddings, receptions, and business meetings. Open-water certified divers can participate in our Aquarium Shark Dive program and get up-close and personal with our sharks in the Graveyard of the Atlantic exhibit.
Visitors can support the Aquarium through the "Own-A-Fish!" and "Adopt-An-Animal" programs. A donation to either program will help create new exhibits, as well as provide care to current Aquarium residents. With the "Own-A-Fish!" program, the donators' names will be engraved into a 14" hand cut fish tile, which is polished, carved, and the permanently displayed in the new Soundside Pier located adjacent to the aquarium. An ideal gift to the aquatic aficionados in your family, this program allows you to leave behind a permanent mark well after you North Carolina Aquarium visit.
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island has been a popular attraction for decades for its expansive complex of all things wild and Outer Banks. From gators to groupers, horseshoe crabs to sand tiger sharks, the large Manteo soundside complex is home to a unique blend of local, regional, and even international species that are certainly worthy of exploration.
Get your hands wet in the fun, accessible touch tank, or marvel at North Carolina's largest collection of sharks. Clearly, with an ocean of species to uncover, the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island will present new surprises, lessons, and fantastic experiences to young and old visitors alike.