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, or at least 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 rays, 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. With multiple rooms and ever-changing exhibits or special events, the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo is a can't-miss attraction for all Outer Banks visitors.
Touring the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo
The Outer Banks aquarium is one of three North Carolina aquariums located along the North Carolina coastline that were opened in the late 1970s and early 1980s to promote visitor education and interest into the watery borders of this string of barrier islands along the East Coast. Remember that 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, and allowing visitors to discover multiple habitats for the OBX's most popular and sometimes elusive species, all within a morning or afternoon self-guided tour.
The exhibits at the aquarium are partitioned into separate "rooms" which focus on a certain aspect of the Outer Banks or local maritime culture. As a guest travels from room to room, they will dive into a new aspect 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, one of the first exhibits they will encounter focuses on the inhabitants of the marshlands and estuaries bordering the Dare and Currituck County mainlands. This exhibit sets the stage for a great self-guided tour with a large otter tank that features a cluster of local river otters at play, zooming past visitors as they circle their manmade habitat.
Just across the room is a replica of a wet marshy environment, complete with small box turtles and a handful of alligators, just peeking out of the water. Many new visitors are surprised to learn that the Outer Banks has resident alligators, but luckily, these reptiles are usually found well off the beaches, and are quietly located along the warm mainland portions of Dare County. In other words, the closest a typical Outer Banks vacationer will get to a local North Carolina alligator is through the glass partition at the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo.
Keep walking, and aquarium visitors will encounter a small hallway and room that is dedicated to not-quite-local tropical fish. While a number of these displayed species may occasionally be found in the warm offshore Gulf Stream waters, more often than not, they are decidedly tropical species that can only be found in certain regions of the world. A colorful and popular addition to the North Carolina aquarium, it's not unusual for visitors to pause by these tanks and simply admire the bright neon colors that these fish display in abundance.
Nearby is a "hurricane room" which is a small component of the aquarium dedicated to the Outer Banks' stormy history of nor'easters and hurricanes. A mounted screen displays news coverage of recent hurricanes that have hit the area, while a number of exhibits and photos outline the devastation that hurricanes have caused on the Outer Banks, from the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962 to Hurricane Irene in 2011. Looking at photos of entire neighborhoods and towns that have been submerged underwater by flooding or storm surges is a remarkable and sobering look into the devastation and incredible rebuilding efforts that the Outer Banks goes through during every significant storm.
One of the most popular displays of the aquarium is the "touch room," an interactive exhibit that allows visitors of all ages to get up close and personal with some of the Outer Banks' favorite aquatic residents. The tanks are essentially large, shallow circular enclosures of saltwater, with no top, and are bordered by raised platforms so even the youngest aquarium visitors can step up and take a look at these critters at eye level. In this room, visitors stand around these circular displays, as manta rays, horseshoe crabs, live mollusks and hermit crabs run laps around the shallow tank. As the animals pass by, visitors can literally reach out and touch their soft, slimy 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.
Towards the back of the aquarium is a changing educational exhibit that is designed with young budding marine biologists in mind. In recent years, the aquarium has featured a makeshift Sea Turtle Rescue Center, which allows young visitors to play an integral role in the hypothetical rescue of an endangered sea turtle. Each visitor is given a hatchling or egg, and from there they perform a series of medical check-ups and actions, which will eventually allow them to return the sea turtle back to nature.
The aquarium also features a live "rescue center" located nearby, where local biologists and volunteers work to provide medical assistance to marine life in need. Visitors can watch the efforts in place to help these animals from a distance, a sight which certainly makes patrons appreciative of the local efforts to keep the marine population in and out of the aquarium strong and thriving.
The tour ends with the aquarium's most famous attraction, a 285,000 gallon "Graveyard of the Atlantic" tank which features a 35' foot-long glass viewing window. 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.
Visitors tend to take the most time enjoying this room, as giant drum and other saltwater species ease by, surrounded by paddling large sea turtles and gigantic, slow-moving sharks. This is arguably the aquarium's biggest thrill, as the sensation of a 10' foot tiger shark simply gliding by right in front of you can cause an excited shiver down any spine. In fact, the aquarium has the largest collection of sharks in the state, which makes it an essential stop for all of the "Jaws" lovers in your vacationing group. At the center of it all is a 1/3 scale replica of the USS Monitor, one of the Outer Banks' most famous shipwrecks, although visitors will be hard pressed to tear their eyes away from the giant fish that float by on a regular basis.
If a visitor's timing is right, they just might be able to catch a tank "feeding" or "diving," which is an incredible sight to take in. During a feeding, a scuba diver is submerged into the 285K tank, and bobs underwater amidst the sharks as they distribute food, do a little cleaning or maintenance, or just put on an incredible show. While visitors may feel their heart stop for a moment as sharks brush against the unarmed diver, there's no reason to worry - in the three decades of the aquarium's operation, they haven't lost a scuba diver yet.
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, or they can step outside to explore the extensive grounds outside the aquarium. Bordering the soundfront, visitors will find scenic walking trails along the edge of the salty waters, 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 sharks' teeth, distinguished by their pointy end and large size.
Hours of Operation and Fees of the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo
The North Carolina Aquarium is open year-round, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily, and only closes on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Because of this, visitors in all seasons can enjoy the aquarium at their leisure, and 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. While one of the most practical times to enjoy the aquarium is on a rainy or breezy day, 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.
Tickets are reasonably priced. Ticket booths are located near the aquarium's entrance, and tickets can even be purchased in advance for a specific date online at the aquarium's website.
To get to the North Carolina Aquarium, 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 North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo
The North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo has a wide range of daily and seasonal events that are wide open to visitors. Patrons can enjoy daily aquarium shark dives, which are usually performed three times a day in the summer months at 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 1:45 p.m., or enjoy a special talk or educational session that is offered throughout the season.
Topics of these special sessions range from the local Outer Banks pirates to mermaids and sea monsters, and are sure to keep your visiting crew fascinated with well-spun tales of local OBX legends. Several hands-on programs are available as well, including a kayaking adventure along the sound, a wetlands walk, or even a cold blooded critters tour. These events may take place within or outside the aquarium's 68,000 square foot building, and may require a small additional fee and advanced reservations. Simply check the aquarium's online calendar before your trip, or ask a local volunteer while on site to see what upcoming programs are available to visitors.
The North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo also hosts a number of seasonal events, such as the regionally famous "Trick or Treat Under the Sea" which is held every late October for visitors of all ages. During this event, the aquarium is open after hours, giving its youngest guests a spooky tour of the facilities, with plenty of treats and candy to go around.
You can also rent the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo after hours for special events, such as business meetings or formal affairs, or even weddings and receptions. In fact, an Outer Banks wedding reception at the aquarium is an event that is increasing in local popularity for the simply incredible locale, and the promise of other-worldly photos set against the backdrop of the 285,000 gallon saltwater tank.
For visitors who want to help support the aquarium, there are a number of charitable options available, including the "Own-A-Fish!" and "Adopt-An-Animal" programs. A donation to either of these two programs will help create new and innovative 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 in Manteo has been a popular Roanoke Island attraction for decades for its expansive complex of all things wild and Outer Banks. From gators to groupers, horseshoe crabs to 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 the slow deliberate movements of North Carolina's largest collection of sharks. Clearly, with an ocean of species to uncover, the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo will present new surprises, lessons, and fantastic experiences to young and old visitors alike. Open year round, seven days a week, every Outer Banks vacationer should put a visit to the aquarium as a priority activity on their vacation agenda. After a close encounter with a shark, or a paddle around the sound under the watchful eye of an experienced guide, you'll definitely be glad you did.
Where to stay near the NC Aquarium Manteo
Vacation rental homes are the most popular way to stay in the Outer Banks. Rental homes are available in nearby Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head from: