S.C. Aquarium

Downtown. 100 Aquarium Wharf. 720-1990

The aquarium was once an easy BOC target — “Best use of the aquarium after it goes bankrupt,” and so forth — but for two consecutive years they’ve been “out of the red.” President and CEO Kevin Mills took over in January 2006, leading a shift in the favorite attraction’s focus toward conservation and diversifying revenues beyond admission fees.

Mayor Riley first suggested an aquarium in the early ’80s, looking for an economic anchor and educational resource in an economically undeveloped section of waterfront property. Construction in the ’90s was complicated by the discovery that the land was contaminated enough to be a Superfund site. After intense cleaning and revitalization financed by a $69 million fund-raising campaign, the tanks were filled and the sharks, fish, and sea turtles took up residence in May 2000.

“I think when we opened there was the anticipation and flawed forecast of how much new business the aquarium would generate for the community,” says Mills. “The market size really didn’t prove to be realistic.”

With that understanding, Mills says the aquarium is moving forward with an added emphasis on conservation and visitor interactivity. This summer, they’ll introduce the “Something’s Fishy” program, a hands-on mystery program for the younger set. They’ve taken an active role in the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, educating visitors on responsible and local consumption practices.

Below the public tanks, the building’s bowels are home to a sea turtle rehabilitation program. Turtles wash ashore for a multitude of reasons, many human-induced, as they travel past our coast in the summer months.

“We’ve had a shark attack turtle, a couple of boat strikes, and fishing gear entanglements,” explains Sea Turtle Program Coordinator Kelly Thorvalson. “We had one who was caught in a crab trap, cut all the way to the bone. He was rescued by fishermen and we were able to save the flipper, which was huge and cut almost all the way off. We called the fishermen back and they helped us release the turtle the next year.”

Not every turtle brought into the aquarium can be released, but the two current residents, St. Simon and Lighthouse, will be returned to the wild this spring. After months of nursing St. Simon, they realized he couldn’t see out of his left eye. Tests showed a abcess in his head, an abyss or infection of some sort, which they’ve successfully treated. He’s still half-blind, but any turtle with a reasonable chance of survival is set free.

Thorvalson explains that the past few years have brought a significant increase in the numbers of emaciated turtles brought in, many dehydrated, anemic, and covered with parasites both internally and on their bodies.

“We don’t know what’s really causing them to get sick, but it’s some sort of toxin out there,” she says. “The turtles that swim through algal blooms get almost paralyzed, and they get debilitated quickly.”

Waterways polluted by manufacturing and industrial animal farming pour out into our oceans, and as this pollution shows signs of stifling ocean life, marine educational institutions play a vital role in promoting conservation. “You’re likely to see stories about climate change and impacts on our coastline in the future,” says CEO Mills.

Going beyond education, they’re conducting research as well. Through a collaboration with DNR and the Nature Conservancy, freshwater mussels are monitored in local streams. Mills calls mussels “the canaries in the coal mine” because they filter water rushing over them. “If we see population decline, we know something is not well upstream,” he says.

Each year, over 1,000 elementary school students “camp out” in the aquarium on an overnight field trip. Twenty high school interns spend their summers learning about marine biology and gaining marketable job skills. As a result of their green business efforts, the aquarium has received the city’s Sustainable Charleston Award. Look for a new child-friendly exhibit to replace the Secrets of the Amazon this year.

The aquarium recognizes that the habitats they showcase in tanks are not protected in the wild. With one eye on education and the other on building healthy ecosystems, the S.C. Aquarium seems to have found the balance it needs to survive and thrive. –Stratton Lawrence

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