No trip to Charleston, South Carolina, would be complete without visiting the South Carolina Aquarium. Opened in May of 2000, the South Carolina Aquarium inspires conservation with some pretty spectacular exhibits. It is home to more than 5000 animals. This unique facility in historic downtown Charleston is both educational and entertaining for at least a few hours (a lot more if you’ve got kids). Be sure to come see why the SC Aquarium has been consistently voted one of the best attractions in Charleston for families!
A Preview of Some of the 60 South Carolina Aquarium Exhibits
South Carolina has some of the most varied ecosystems in the United States, and visitors to Charleston’s Aquarium get to experience the majority of them, as well as some more exotic locales, in the various exhibitions on site. With a salt marsh aviary, two-story aquarium tank, touch tanks, and educational tours and programs surrounded by moving views of the Charleston harbor and the Ravenel Bridge, a visit to the South Carolina Aquarium is well-worth the price of admission. Sections of the Aquarium are divided into the major geographic regions of South Carolina: Mountain Forest, Piedmont, Coastal Plain, Atlantic Coast, and the Open Ocean off of South Carolina’s coast.
1. Shark Shallows
The Shark Shallows is one of the first exhibits visitors to the Aquarium see when they approach the entrance to the building on Liberty Square. The 20,000-gallon tank features a deep end and a shallow end, designed so that visitors can touch the sharks and rays as they pass. Be sure to swing-by the touch tank by the harbor before entering the Aquarium to touch the bonnethead sharks, stingrays, and cow nose rays.
2. Touch Tank
This exhibit allows visitors to touch a variety of crabs, whelk, and sea urchins. The professional staff is always on hand to answer any questions you may have.
3. Mountain Forest
The Mountain Forest exhibit displays the natural ecosystem of the Blue Ridge mountain region of South Carolina, around Greenville. This exhibit is as close as most visitors will come to visiting an old-growth forest. The Mountain Forest features a bald eagle, a variety of different birds from that area, freshwater fish found in the fast-moving streams of the mountains (including brook trout), and North American river otters. A major draw of the SC Aquarium, visitors watch in awe as river otters swirl through the cold waters of their habitat.
4. The Piedmont
The Piedmont region is the foothills in the middle of the state leading to the Blue Ridge mountains. This particular exhibit focuses on the fish and wildlife of that region of the state, as well as South Carolina during prehistoric times. Millions of years ago, the coast was at Columbia, while all of the Lowcountry was underwater. You can still find megalodon teeth fossils to this day in South Carolina.
5. Coastal Plain
The Coastal Plain exhibit showcases the fish and wildlife of the South Carolina Lowcountry. This exhibit is connected to the Piedmont section of the Aquarium and features fish, amphibians, and plants found along the Carolina coast and in its freshwater marsh and swamp habitats (including cypress trees downed by Hurricane Hugo). It also features such reptiles as Alabaster, the albino alligator resident at the SC Aquarium, and several venomous snakes found in the state, including the Eastern diamondback and copperhead snake. Visitors may even get to witness a Venus Flytrap in action.
With various microclimates even in the shallow waters along the coast of South Carolina, it can sometimes be a bit shocking how many different varieties of sealife are found in abundance on the coast of the Lowcountry. With shrimp, crabs, stingrays, lobster, flounder, sea turtles, seahorses, invasive species like lionfish and many more, this is a fairly extensive exhibit.
No matter how many attractions they add-on to the SC Aquarium, the two-story, 385,000 gallon Great Ocean Tank in the Ocean exhibit will likely always remain a major draw to this Charleston tourist attraction. Some of the species that may be encountered in the tank include: reef fish, sandtiger sharks, black tip reef sharks, barracuda, bass, red drum, a 220-pound loggerhead sea turtle named Caretta, and much more! Other tanks surrounding the Great Ocean Tank include such fish as scorpion fish, moon jellyfish, dog chain fish, eels, and black sea bass. The divers who clean and maintain the tank are known to entertain aquarium-goers while they’re in the tank. The diver will carry his trumpet around with him in the tank and play it during performances by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, for example! The Weeki Wachee mermaids have also been known to make an appearance in this giant tank.
8. Saltmarsh Aviary
Another semi open-air exhibit, this one on the top floor of the South Carolina Aquarium, the Saltmarsh Aviary shows-off a lot of coastal birds in the Carolinas including herons, egrets, and pelicans, as well as pufferfish, blue crabs, diamondback terrapins, and stingrays in a 6,000-gallon stingray tank. All of this is surrounded by pretty spectacular views of the Charleston harbor, by the way. You’ll notice that the tanks in the coastal bird habitat are lacking in small fish. All fish small enough to be scooped-up by a pelican bill were hunted-out shortly after the fairly recent introduction of the pelicans. Much to the chagrin of the keepers, pelicans eat a lot in a day, though they do appear to be gaining their own following at the SC Aquarium.
9. Animal Care Exhibit
As one can imagine the veterinarian of the aquarium is a very important member of the team. You can learn how to treat various animals while using the mock equipment in the Animal Care Exhibit. This exhibit is a big hit for children.
10. Madagascar Journey
The newest exhibit at Charleston’s Aquarium features four unique habitats from the island of Madagascar. Almost all of the species found at the Madagascar exhibit are endemic and found nowhere else in the world. Be sure to check out the red ruffed lemurs, a Nile crocodile, white-spotted bamboo sharks, tomato frogs, vasa parrots, hissing cockroaches (which are actually grosser than palmetto bugs, in this writer’s opinion) and Mini-gascar, a play area for toddlers. This area used to have ring-tailed lemurs, though these guys have since moved on, though they were replaced by the red ruffed lemurs. You’ll be very sad if you come to Charleston and don’t see lemurs, we’re just sayin’.
11. 4-D Theater
Other than actually going out and experiencing it in person, there is no more realistic adventure than a movie in the 4-D theater. Sit back and watch a 3-D family-friendly movie and feel as if you are in the show. While watching you will feel the effects such as ocean sprays, wind blowing across your face, even movement under your feet!
12. Carolina Seas
An array of colorful and fascinatingly beautiful (or not, in one particular case) fish native to the reefs off the Carolina coast are housed in a 15,000-gallon tank situated close to the entrance of the Aquarium.
13. Backyard Habitat
A beautifully designed backyard exhibit has bright and beautiful flowers and other varieties of native plant life. The Backyard Habitat at the entrance to the Aquarium offers native wildlife some shelter in Liberty Square and aims to give you an idea on how you can improve your backyard to attract native birds, butterflies, and other pollinators, insects, and wildlife to your backyard.
14. Sea Turtle Hospital
Pay a little extra ($10 for adults, $5 for children 3 to 12, toddlers free in addition to the regular admission) to visit the Sea Turtle Rescue Program’s Sea Turtle Hospital on site at the SC Aquarium. It’s the only facility in South Carolina devote to the care and treatment of sick and injured sea turtles. Tours are offered daily at noon and 2 pm and usually sell-out quickly.
Visiting the South Carolina Aquarium
South Carolina Aquarium is located at 100 Aquarium Wharf in Charleston, South Carolina 29401. Also known as Liberty Square, this is also the wharf from which tour ferries leave for Fort Sumter. The number for the SC Aquarium is: 843-577-3474, while the toll-free number is 800-722-6455. South Carolina Aquarium hours are 9-4 daily, open 9 to noon on Christmas Eve, closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Getting South Carolina Aquarium Tickets
Though you can pay an entrance fee for one-time visitation, if you would like unlimited access, a membership pays for itself with only two visits. Memberships allow unlimited visits for one full year from the date of purchase. You also get discounts on the Sea Turtle Hospital Tour, cafe, gift shop and more. The 4-D theater is included in your membership. Members receive a membership card and a decal for their car.
Some of the Membership Options Include:
- Family Plus – two adults living at the same address as well as any children or grandchildren you list. You also get two guest privileges for a cost of $209.00
- Family – two adults living at the same address and all children listed under 18 years of age for an annual fee of $169.00
- Grandparent – two adults living at the same address and all listed grandchildren listed under 18 years old for $129.00
- Individual Plus – one adult and one guest pass for $109 per year.
- Dual – two adults for $109.00
- Individual – one adult for $79.00
Daily Rates for SC Aquarium Tickets
A visit to the Aquarium is a great option for families, but it will certainly cost you a pretty penny. After all, all those animals have to eat!
- Adult pass – $29.95
- Adult aquarium only – $24.95
- Children (age 3-12) pass – $22.95
- Child aquarium only (age 3-12)- $17.95
Note: Members are allowed unlimited access, these prices do not affect members. Toddlers under 3 are free.
South Carolina Aquarium Parking
The city of Charleston has opened a parking garage at 24 Calhoun street, a short walk from the entrance to the Aquarium. Metered parking is available along Washington and Concord streets.
South Carolina Aquarium Events
The South Carolina Aquarium is a beautiful venue for a wedding and wedding reception. With the Great Ocean Tank or views of the Charleston harbor as a backdrop, there’s no question it’s a pretty fantastic place to hold your wedding. Contact customer service for availability and price.
South Carolina Aquarium Jobs and Internships
As is the case with any place as awesome as a zoo or aquarium, jobs at the aquarium are hard to come-by–people who hold positions here rarely want to leave (understandably), and there is always a ready supply of people looking to work here when there are openings.
But there is the internship route for young people in the Charleston area who are interested in volunteering. Every year, 10 eleventh grade students are selected to enjoy a once in a lifetime opportunity to intern at the South Carolina Aquarium. There are actually quite a few opportunities, check the website for details.
Is There a South Carolina Zoo?
There is a South Carolina Zoo, sort of. The closest thing to a South Carolina Zoo would be the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, South Carolina, about an hour and a half drive away from Charleston. As far as other places to see animals near Charleston (outside of parks), other options are the Charlest Town Landing Zoo and the Edisto Island Serpentarium.
1. Riverbanks Zoo
The Riverbanks Zoo and Garden is a 170-acre zoo, aquarium, and botanical garden on the banks of the Saluda River in Columbia.
2. Charles Towne Landing Zoo
This 22-acre historical animal forest is one of a kind at the site of the first settlement in the Charleston area by the English. This little open-air zoo at Charles Towne Landing was created to show the various species of animals that lived in the Lowcountry at the time of the arrival of European settlers. Some of the animals that can be visited here include: turkeys, white-tailed deer, skunks, bobcats, mountain lions, bison, farm animals like pigs, sheep and goats; black bears, mountain lions, and more North American river otters!
3. Edisto Island Serpentarium
This unique facility has an indoor area, gift shop and a variety of shows and lectures. It features snakes, sea turtles, alligators, and lizards. Check the Edisto Island Serpentarium website for times, shows and sometimes discount ticket prices.
4. Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry
A fantastic child-friendly attraction in Charleston and close to the SC Aquarium, the Charleston Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry is a hands-on museum for children 10 and under. They feature a variety of shows and learning adventures.
And once you’ve finished exploring these fantastic kid-friendly attractions in Charleston, SC, be sure to see our list of the best free things to do in Charleston with kids!