Indoor Oceans: North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

As a SCUBA diver for more than two decades, one of my favorite places to be is underwater exploring a coral reef, swimming among colorful schools of fish. When that’s not possible, visiting an aquarium like the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is an excellent alternative.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Atlantic Spadefish metal sculpture outside the Aquarium.

Atlantic Spadefish metal sculpture outside the Aquarium.

Located just a few miles from Atlantic Beach on the southern Outer Banks, the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is the largest in the state, covering 96,000 square feet, with the largest ocean habitat.

Living Shipwreck exhibit

The stars of its Living Shipwreck exhibit, which holds more than 300,000 gallons of salt water, are the sharks. A sandbar shark, sand tiger shark and nurse shark apparently live peacefully with the habitat’s other inhabitants which swim around a replica of the U-352, a famous World War II shipwreck., including a green sea turtle, a Goliath grouper, and a variety of other fish—tarpon, yellowtail snapper, sheepshead, and horse-eye and crevalle jacks.

Volunteer SCUBA divers help visitors learn assist with underwater programs, help care for the animals and maintain the exhibits.

North Carolina Aquarium Living Shipwreck habitat with divers

Did You Know - about the Living Shipwreck habitat

Water is pumped directly from Bogue Sound, the body of water behind the Aquarium, into holding containers for use in the Living Shipwreck and its other salt water habitats. The water used is returned so there is a constant water supply coming to and from Bogue Sound and the Aquarium.

Opposite the Living Shipwreck is a colorful habitat called Wreck of the Caribsea, filled with reef fish, including my favorite, a balloonfish, a type of pufferfish. (Following the Slideshow is a short video of the reef fish in this exhibit…so relaxing!)

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A large cylinder tank, where the fish swim around and around in a circle, is nearby, while jellyfish are in a blacklight habitat to make their clear bodies show up.

Cylinder tank with kids

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Cylinder Tank

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores cylinder tank scene

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In addition to the Ocean Gallery, other exhibits cover the Tidal Waters, Coast Plains, and Mountains.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Tidal Waters

The Touch Tank where stingrays can safely be touched as they glide by is a popular spot for children and their parents.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Touch Tank with kids

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Touch Tank overview The seahorse exhibit was one of my favorites. I always love seeing them while SCUBA diving. One of their unique characteristics is that the males carry their young in a pouch on their stomach. Breeding seahorses in captivity is difficult since the babies are so tiny, but the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores has a seahorse holding tank that we were able to see on a behind-the-scenes tour.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores seahorseNorth Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Seahorses exhibitNorth Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores seahorse holding tankBehind the scenes tours are available for a small extra fee, like the one we took with Blaise, a Special Activities Instructor, who walked us through the areas where turtles are being rehabilitated and sea life, including seahorses and jellyfish are being breeded and raised to a size that can be on display.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores sea turtle in rehab areaBlaise at North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores sea turtle in rehab areaWhile the number of rescued sea turtles varies from year to year, on average, staff members at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores care for 200 sea turtles annually from hatchlings to those in the sub-adult stage.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Sea Turtle Nursery SignA lionfish holding tank was spotted, too, for containing this invasive species that damages coral but is gaining popularity as a tasty fish to eat.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores lionfish holding tankClick here to access a full list and description of these programs.

The Aquarium also hosts outdoor programs in the summer months, including marsh exploration, paddleboarding, kayaking and canoeing.

Don’t miss the opportunity to stop by the Gift Shop on your way out to find a book, t-shirt, or other souvenir from your time at the Aquarium.

North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Gift Shop

More than 11 million people have visited the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores since opening in 1976. It closed in late 2003 for a major renovation that tripled its size and reopened in May 2006. It is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. including most holidays. Find ticket information at this link: Pine Knoll Shores Tickets  

Map - North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

Three other North Carolina Aquariums are located along its coast:

North Carolina Aquarium, Fort Fisher, Kure Beach (Second largest, near Wilmington)

North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, Manteo (Recently renovated)

Jennette’s Pier at Nag’s Head (A fishing pier with ocean habitats)

Thanks to the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores for welcoming me and other writers visiting as part of our weekend on the Crystal Coast, following the annual conference of the North American Travel Journalist Assn. (NATJA) conference in Chapel Hill. Our weekend host:  Special thanks to Shannon Kemp, Assistant Public Relations Coordinator, for her assistance with information for this post.

Photos and Video © Debbra Dunning Brouillette


Also on the Blog: North Carolina’s Crystal Coast: Cape Lookout National Seashore and Lighthouse

















28 Comments on “Indoor Oceans: North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

  1. I really enjoyed the Pine Knolls Aquarium and their shipwreck focus and that is the first behind-the-scenes tour I’ve ever done. Blaise was an excellent guide. Your closeups of the seahorses are fantastic!

    • Thanks, Priscilla! I love visiting Aquariums and seahorses are one of my favorite sea creatures!

  2. Great blog post! I would like to visit the aquarium sometime!

  3. I just love exploring the world’s underwater marine life and habitats but unfortunately I’m not a very good swimmer so the NC aquarium sounds perfect for me. Those seahorses and jelly fish are my faves

    • Thank you, Michelle, for commenting! I also love seahorses and it’s fun to see jellies (as long as they aren’t close enough to sting, or they are the non-stinging kind!). This was a fun aquarium to visit, and there are several more along the North Carolina coast to discover!

  4. What’s better than taking children to anything water-related – particularly since water and our ‘finny friends’ are priorities in today’s world. Loved the pix, and the information. Sounds like an excellent aquarium. I’m more of a snorkeler, but my kids all have scuba accreditation. Great stress relief – in and out of the water.

    • I agree, Ursula! Kids (and big kids, too!) are fascinated with sea creatures and watching the fish is very relaxing. The North Carolina Aquariums are accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and a partner in SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction, so they do maintain standards of excellence.

  5. North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores looks a great place. Unlike you,I have no desire to scuba or go underwater so I love being able to see sea life in aquariums like this.

    • That is true, Donna! Not everyone wants to learn to dive or snorkel, so that’s why I love these “indoor oceans” so much. They bring the ocean to those who would otherwise not get a close-up look at life in the sea.

    • Thanks, Irene! I’m sure you would enjoy visiting the Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores if you make it to this part of the Outer Banks!

  6. I love visiting aquariums too, Debbie. But unlike you who can enjoy the marine life by scuba diving, for me they are the only alternative to see it. So far the biggest aquarium I’ve seen is the one in Monterey, California, but it seems to me that North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is way bigger. No wonder since they also display a shipwreck. It must have been very interesting to see a real War II shipwreck.

    • The shipwreck exhibit features a three-quarter size replica of the original WWII shipwreck, so it’s not the actual ship but still quite an interesting backdrop for the sharks and other fish. North Carolina is known for its wreck diving.

    • I’m glad, too, that there are many aquariums in the U.S. for people to learn about the fascinating creatures that live in our oceans. Thanks for commenting!

  7. I’ve been to the Outer Banks a couple times, but I mostly stayed in Nags Head and explored the nearby communities. We never got far enough south to visit this aquarium, which looks like a fun one to explore. The shipwreck is pretty unique. We did pop into the small aquarium at Jeanette’s Pier one day. It may have been under construction then because I don’t remember seeing much in the exhibits there, but it is across the street from Sam & Omie’s, one of my favorite breakfast spots. I’d love to visit the southern part of the the Outer Banks someday, so I’ll keep this aquarium in mind.

    • Since there are several Aquariums on North Carolina’s coast, you have a few options to visit one of these “indoor oceans!” If you get to the southern part of the Outer Banks, known as the Crystal Shore, I hope you will stop in to this one at Pine Knoll Shores.

  8. I have been to Atlantic beach there but not that aquarium. Looks like a great one, love the Living Shipwreck and the behind the scenes tour. So many great pictures here!

    • Wow, Evelyne, so you were just a few miles away if you were in Atlantic Beach! I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. If you go back to the area, you’ll have to plan a stop at the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores!

    • I agree, Melody, that every Aquarium I’ve visited has its unique features…and I love them all!

  9. All my underwater adventures are aquariums; no SCUBA diving for me. Therefore, I love aquariums especially ones of this quality. I love how the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores uses natural sea water and it’s constantly being circulated. Also the number of exhibits and your behind the scenes tour. I would love to visit the Outer Banks and if I ever do, I plan to visit this aquarium!

    • Thanks for your comment, Marilyn! If you make it to the area, be sure to schedule a behind-the-scenes tour at the Aquarium. It was fascinating and the staff are very knowledgeable about the creatures they care for!

  10. Wonderful close-up photo of the seahorse! I would love a visit to the North Carolina Aquarium. So sorry I missed meeting my NATJA pals in NC this year.

    • We missed you, Doreen! Hope you can join us next year in Branson, MO. And thanks re: the seahorse pic! They are challenging to photograph underwater while SCUBA diving…a bit easier in an aquarium!

  11. Thank you so much for introducing us to the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium. We love nature especially animals. This would be an ideal place for us to visit. The delicate nature of our ecology system is so important to explore.

  12. Sorry I missed meeting all of you in NATJA, it sounds like everyone had a great time. Underwater, I’ve never gotten past snorkeling, and I do so want to try scuba, but am terrified. I love aquariums and this one in North Carolina looks like a beauty. Wonderful photos and so extensive is your coverage illustrating all they offer.

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