Visit the Fort Fisher Aquarium for a Day of Family Fun

Sometimes you just have to pack the car and get out of town, and the Fort Fisher Aquarium offers a really good excuse to do that. Drive north for a little over an hour from Myrtle Beach and you’ll find yourself in the historic town of Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

Here's where the adventure begins.

If you can make some time to visit this quaint, seaport town, it’s well worth your stay. You’ll find unique shops, waterfront restaurants, and history in a walkable setting. You can also plan a separate trip and spend the day or weekend, but if your mission is to visit this great NC aquarium, then you’ll need to head to the ferry docks.

As you come into town on North Carolina Highway 211 south, stay on 211 through town to where it makes a left turn just before you reach Waterfront Park. Continue to the traffic circle where you’ll take the first right and follow the road to where it ends at the Southport ferry terminal. It’s all well signed.

NC Ferry crossing the Cape Fear RiverSouthport-Fort Fisher Ferry

NC Ferry Trip

The North Carolina Ferry system is an amazing set of water routes designed to move people and vehicles as directly as possible across the many rivers and tributaries of the North Carolina coast. Between Southport and Fort Fisher, ferries run daily throughout the year every 45 minutes beginning at 7:00 a.m. Be sure and check the schedule as times vary a little for the season and day of the week.

Southport Ferry Terminal

Fares are $5 per passenger vehicle one way (RVs are $10). You do not need a reservation, but it is advisable to get there early to catch the ferry at the time you want to leave. During peak season, it’s good to be at the terminal 45 minutes to an hour ahead of time. If you can get there before 10:00 a.m., you’ll have a better chance of getting on the ferry. It’s the same coming back from Fort Fisher in the afternoon. If you wait until after 3:00 p.m., you’ll have a better chance at the ferry time you want. Otherwise, you may have to wait for the next one. Be sure to have water and snacks with you because there is nothing nearby, although the small terminal buildings do have bathrooms and vending machines.

If you’ve never taken a car ferry, you’re in for a treat. Don’t be shy, pull your car onboard just as the ferry workers instruct you to. Park, put on the emergency brake, and wait. When they blow the horn, you may get out of your car and explore the ferry and enjoy the ride.

Ferry passing cargo ship on the Cape Fear RiverNC Ferry passes a cargo ship

Crossing the Cape Fear River takes only a few minutes, but there’s a lot to see. Besides Old Baldy, the historic lighthouse on Baldhead Island, there’s another ancient and now unused light tower on the mainland side. The seagulls will follow you the whole way hoping for handouts, and often large cargo ships and tankers will pass you as they make their way to and from the port at Wilmington.

The trip ends at the Fort Fisher ferry dock. The ferry workers will direct the disembarking so be ready to go when they tell you to. As you leave the ferry, turn left onto U. S. Highway 421 north and follow it for about a mile. You’ll reach the entrance to the Fort Fisher Aquarium and State Recreation Area on your right. Follow the road all the way back to the aquarium parking lot. Parking at the aquarium is free.

Fort Fisher Aquarium

Located on a narrow spit of land with a gorgeous North Carolina beach on one side and the Cape Fear River on the other, the Fort Fisher Aquarium is one of four aquariums in NC that are administered by the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The aquarium is housed in a 93,000 square-foot building that includes a 235,000 gallon, two-story high saltwater tank. The entire facility sits on 23 acres within the Fort Fisher State Recreation Area and includes an outdoor bird garden, children’s playground, and an area where kids can dig for fossils. The mission of the North Carolina Aquariums is to foster appreciation for and conservation of aquatic environments.

Alligator Display Fort Fisher AquariumAn alligator greets you at the Fort Fisher Aquarium

As you enter the aquarium, you’re greeted by one of the locals, a particularly large alligator, but don’t worry, this one doesn’t bite. Inside, however, you’ll find several that do as you wind your way through the Freshwater Conservancy of the Cape Fear River Basin.

Freshwater fish exhibit

Along with the alligators, you’ll find a bald eagle, frogs, snakes, and fish, each in an environment that simulates their native habitats. You can take your time observing these animals and when you’re ready, pass through the doors at the far end to enter the marine building.

Children touch sea creatures in the saltwater touch tank.The Saltwater Touch Tank is a popular exhibit.

One of the more popular exhibits here is the marine touch tank. Don’t worry, the stingrays are small and have had their stingers removed. There are also sea anemones, horseshoe crabs, and other creatures found in the tidal pools of the Carolinas.

Marine Mammal Exhibit, Fort Fisher AquariumMarine Mammals Exhibit

On this floor as well you’ll find a tropical fish tank, a sea turtle exhibit, and an exhibit about hurricanes. The balcony overlooks the marine mammals exhibit that includes whales and dolphins, and the two-story salt water tank. This is the largest exhibit at the Fort Fisher Aquarium and includes sea turtles, sharks, eels, and large fish such as grouper. You might even see a human diver in there if you get there for feeding time.

Fish swim in the two-story saltwater tankThe two-story marine tank holds 235,000 gallons of saltwater.

Downstairs you’ll find the Open Oceans Gallery with jelly fish, creatures of the Cape Fear Ledge, and the eerie moon jellies. There’s also an exhibit of ocean exotics such as sea horses, spiny lobsters, and poison dart frogs. You can even pet a shark at the shark touch tank.

Fort Fisher Aquarium offers free programs throughout each day that include animal feedings, getting up close and personal with snakes and amphibians, and various educational programs. Staff and trainers are always happy to answer any questions you may have.

Special tours and experiences are offered for children ages three and older at additional pricing. They include a behind the scenes tour of the aquarium’s animal care areas, helping staff feed and care for aquarium animals, surf fishing, and canoeing, to name just a few. The aquarium can also host birthday parties, weddings, sleepovers, and private and corporate events.

Fort Fisher Historic Site

After visiting the aquarium, delve into Civil War history at the Fort Fisher Visitor Center just north of the aquarium. Located at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, Fort Fisher was a strategic location for the Confederacy and the fort helped to protect Wilmington and keep the port city

open to blockade runners bringing much needed supplies.

At the Visitor Center, you’ll find historical exhibits and a 10-minute video about Fort Fisher. From there you can walk the short trail that leads to the earthworks that remain and see the restored gun emplacement that is located on top of one of the batteries. A monument to the Confederate dead is on the ocean side.

If you want to spend more time exploring the area, plan to stay overnight just up the road at one of several Kure Beach hotels or vacation rentals. After your stay, you can either take U. S. Highway 421 north to Wilmington and then pick up U. S. Highway 17 south to Myrtle Beach, or return to the Fort Fisher ferry terminal and take the ferry back to Southport.

Spadefish sculpture at the entrance to Fort Fisher Aquarium

Tips and Tricks

  • Free Admission Days: all visitors are admitted free of charge on Veterans Day, November 11, and on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the third Monday of January.
  • The Aquarium is wheelchair accessible. A limited number of wheelchairs are available upon request for on-site use.  
  • You are welcome to bring a picnic (there are picnic tables at the end of the parking lot) or grab a snack at the Sharkbites Snack Bar. Their menu has deli sandwiches, burgers, corn dogs, pizza, salad, fries, chips, soft drinks, and ice cream. No food or drink is allowed inside the aquarium.  
  • You can generally tour the aquarium in about two hours, but you’ll need to allow more time if you plan to participate in the free daily programs or go on a special tour.  
  • A children’s play area called Adventure Reef Playground is outside next the Sharkbites Snack Bar, a must if you have children who need to burn off some energy before getting back into the car. 

Fort Fisher Aquarium

900 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach, NC 28449

910-772-0500

Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. year-round

General Admission Prices (plus tax)

Adults (Ages 13-61): $10.95

Seniors (Ages 62 and older): $9.95

Military: $9.95

Children (Ages 3-12): $8.95

Ages 2 and younger and NC Aquarium Society Members: FREE

Find more information about the Fort Fisher Aquarium at their website.


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