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.
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.
$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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Fort Fisher Aquarium
900 Loggerhead Road, Kure Beach, NC 28449
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
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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