A handful of official “North Carolina Aquariums” are all associated with one another, while independent, smaller, equally immersive establishments are spread throughout the state, each offering something unique. Whether learning about the local coastline, exotic species, or conservation, each one on our list delivers. Some go even further to offer land experiences featuring some of our favorite mammals, or even a peek into the past. These top North Carolina Aquariums are worth a visit.
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North Carolina Aquarium at Jennette’s Pier, Nags Head
Nags Head is within the Outer Banks islands of North Carolina, which are pretty neat just by themselves—to get to some of these stunning pieces of land, you get to drive your car onto a ferry. The North Carolina Aquarium at Jennette’s Pier is also here and is a place where, in one instance, guests can gaze at hundreds of swimming creatures inside, then go out onto the stretching pier to cast their own line. Fishing lessons, conservation, education and access to beautiful beaches await alongside this neat aquarium.
North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores
Located on the Pine Knoll Shores barrier island of North Carolina, this aquarium wows with its outdoor habitat before even entering Pine Knoll Shores itself. Visitors are totally wowed upon entering, as they are greeted with a three-story, trickling water feature with cavernous surroundings—imagine you’re spelunking in caves deep below the earth! In addition to a few land animals, greet a rare white turtle, pet a stingray and explore habitats created by replica historic sunken military ships.
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, Manteo
The North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island is one of the best places to see animals in the state, and here they also have a sea turtle rescue program, which kids and adults can see first-hand as the amazing creatures are rehabilitated on site. Some of the other displays are downright futuristic looking and quite impressive. Roanoke Island is another part of the Outer Banks, which has an enriching downtown area with lots of history—the aquarium is just one of the many things to do on this particular island.
Team ECCO Ocean Center Aquarium, Hendersonville
Hendersonville, North Carolina—a cozy mountain town where one can soak in the Blue Ridge range, history…and fish? Yep, the Team ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium is a highly educational and engaging place to learn about a wide variety of marine life. While some aquariums do have tanks where you can pet stingrays, Team ECCO allows folks to touch starfish and horseshoe crabs. Another tank houses the Finding Nemo gang—imposters, but no doubt super cute! What makes this place truly magical is the overall small-town vibe. You can tell the staff genuinely has a passion for what they do, making this mountain aquarium quite special.
North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Kure Beach
Located in Kure Beach, near Wilmington, the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher delves deep into the local ecology of the Cape Fear River, and proximal ocean waters. Explore mesmerizing jellyfish displays, learn about the school bus-sized shark that roamed the local waters long ago, and watch experts scuba dive to interact with marine life. Outside, a wooden walkway winds through native foliage, while there’s also a fossil hunt activity as well. The Fort Fisher aquarium hosts workshops and programs, too, like surf fishing on the nearby beach.
Greensboro Science Center, Greensboro
Visitors get quite a variety of experiences at the Greensboro Science Center, where a zoo, museum and aquarium all come together as one. See wild cats, touch stingrays and dote over precious penguins—it’s an all-day affair for families. With cool lighting and intricately designed tanks, the aquatic portion might be the most alluring. One of the tanks is pretty famed, and it is designed to look like a giant octopus is clutching the glass, while real octopi squiggle around inside.
Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium, Charlotte
Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium is visually captivating. With all the show-stopping aesthetics, like underwater tunnels, sparkling pools, touch tanks brimming with stingrays and vibrant lighting, this marine adventure will capture the attention of both kids and adults from start to finish. Like many aquariums, guests can add on cool behind the scenes experiences, to get a closer look at the daily lives of both animals and employees.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences is for every kid who’s ever dreamed of meeting a dinosaur, every animal-loving soul, and of course, those who’ve ever marveled at the complexity of the ocean. A 10,000-gallon tank, mimicking North Carolina’s native seafloor, is enveloped by an abundance of opportunity to explore the wonders of our world. Watch real-life medical operations on delicate animals, investigate fossils, be a meteorologist—this museum is nothing short of dazzling, and the aquarium is one of the most striking exhibits.