We had a good plan for Thursday. Drive the hour and a half to Charleston and see the Hunley, the Confederate submarine recently raised from the depths of Charleston Harbor. Chari has seen it, but I have not, and really wanted to. I still do. We drove to the industrial section of town where it is stored and on display only to find that it is still undergoing substantial work to preserve it, and is only available to the viewing public on weekends. So, instead, we drove the three or four miles to the South Carolina Aquarium to spend the afternoon.
The SC Aquarium was opened thirteen years ago. It is located on Charleston Harbor next to the NPS Visitor Center for Fort Sumter. With one exception, the South Carolina Aquarium limits itself to displays of aquatic life native to South Carolina. The one exception is a display of ringtail lemurs from Madagascar. It is is the fourth largest island in the world and is located off the east coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. With 70 species of lemurs and a biodiversity to rival the Galapagos, Madagascar is definitely on our Bucket list. The facility has displays for each section of the state. The Mountain Forest section includes an eagle and river otters, one of the three mammal species there. The other two are the lemurs in Madagascar, and an opossum. The opossum is not on display but is used for educational purposes. The Piedmont section shows the life in the rivers, lakes, and reservoirs within the state. The Coastal Plain section has reptiles, plants, and fish from the swamps, plains, and marshes, including an albino alligator. The Salt Marsh includes birds and fish living in the tidal marshes with ducks, pelicans, herons. There is a hands-on exhibit featuring horseshoe crabs, skates, sea stars (which I know as starfish, but apparently, someone decided to change the name since they are not technically “fish”), and shellfish, that is very popular with the younger crowd. The Coast features sea turtles, sea horses (Why are they still called “horses” I wonder?) and some mesmerizing jellyfish.
All very interesting, informative, and pretty, but my favorite section is the G.O.T.,the Great Ocean Tank, a two story tall tank featuring sharks and fish living in the Atlantic off the South Carolina Coast. While we were looking at one of the tanks, Chari pushed a button on an electronic display showing various daily programs. She saw one that offered a “behind the scenes” tour starting at 2:30 pm. “What time is it?” “2:20…” “ You wanna do it?” “Sure, let’s go.” So, we went back to the entrance area and asked. We bought our tickets and the cashier made a phone call. “We’ve got a couple of people here who want the tour. ”We sat on a bench for about five minutes until Jamie came over, introduced herself, and told us she would be our guide. Every once in a while you meet someone who is tailor-made for their job. Jamie is just such a person. She’s been with the SC Aquarium for nine years. She’s knowledgeable, personable and passionate about her work. Her tour was the highlight of our visit.
Our first stop was a wet lab where a chemist was working checking the nitrate levels in water from one of the tanks. Jamie and the chemist explained the various tests they do to keep the water in each tank in balance. Next came the food preparation room. She explained all about the feeding procedure and schedule for the different fish, birds, and mammals on display. They all get fed according to their needs with fresh vegetables, fruits, frozen or fresh fish and commercially prepared foods. Did you know Purina makes Lemur Chow? Or Alligator Chow? Well, neither did we! All the foods are measured and weighed according to a schedule. Some foods must be removed from the freezer a day ahead to be sure it’s properly thawed and ready to use. Some of the animals are fed different things at different times of the day. For instance, the lemurs are fed their Purina Chow early in the day since it is fortified with the proper vitamins and minerals they require. Later they are given fresh fruits and vegetables to balance out a healthy diet. If they were given the fresh stuff first, they might fill up and not want the other stuff.
Kinda like a kid filling up on cookies and ice cream just before supper! I was surprised to learn that the aquarium purchased all of their fruits and vegetables. I would have thought many stores would donate items that were cosmetically not suitable for sale but still useable. Jamie explained how the aquarium uses their many devoted volunteers. Volunteers greatly outnumber the paid staff. The staff involved with the fish, birds and animals are all four year or more college graduates. Many college students work in the ticket and public relations area. The aquarium has a full time veterinarian and modern clinic.
Then we went up to the third floor to look down into the G.O.T. (Great Ocean Tank). We saw the various pumps, filters and piping required to support the displays below. Three types of filters are required. The first is a mechanical sand filter that removes the larger particles present in the water much like the sand filter used in a swimming pool. A chemical filter mixes the tank water with reagents to remove various pollutants. Finally a biological filter uses various types of bacteria to devour any biological pollutants. A very sophisticated system and very interesting to see. All of the water used in the G.O.T. is taken from the harbor. Water exchanges are made 3 to 4 times a year. At any one time the tank receives 25% fresh water. This prevents shock to the inhabitants. Gradual exchange also keeps the pressure stable against the viewing windows. It is the pressure that keeps them in place.
While at the G.O. T., Jamie explained to us how various fish are fed.. Since the tank contains large fish as well as small they need to be fed different things. They can’t just dump it all in at the same time. The smaller fish are fed by lowering a bucket filled with the proper food down into the rocks and coral where the big fish don’t feed, allowing them to eat undisturbed. The device is similar to a chum bucket I’ve used to attract baitfish when fishing for larger fish such as blues or mackerel. Food for the larger fish is tossed on top of the tank. Sharks are fed separately from the others by using a long pole-like device with a clamp at one end so they can deliver the food to each individual. They found they had a problem feeding the sharks. They have a sea turtle in the big tank who apparently likes the same food as the sharks. Not being the sharpest knife in the rack, she tries to steal the food from them. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to go around stealing food from the mouths of sharks! They had to find a way to keep her out of the sharks path at feeding time. This was their solution. Whenever they fed the turtle, they displayed a big red triangle in front of the food. When she saw the triangle,she gradually learned that it meant food. Then, they lowered a white box into the tank, put the red triangle in front of it. She swam into the box and they fed her. Eventually they were able to forget about the triangle. Now whenever they lower the box into the tank she swims right into it. and gets fed. The sharks are able to dine undisturbed by that troublesome turtle! After dinner she gets released. Both turtle and sharks are happy!
We talked about how they acquire the various fish and animals for the aquarium. Some of the fish they catch in the wild. Some, like the eagle who had flown into power lines and broken its wing, were rescued. Part of the wing had to be amputated to save the bird and it couldn’t be released to the wild. Jamie told us an interesting story about the sea turtle. Years ago a Canadian couple illegally picked up a hatchling sea turtle from a beach in the USA before it could make its way to the sea. They kept it in their home aquarium until it grew too large. Eventually they needed to keep it in the bathtub. When it grew too large for the tub they contacted the Vancouver Aquarium. All animals in zoos or aquariums are required by law to have proper documentation as to how they were acquired and this one obviously had no papers. I don’t know what action was taken against the couple but the Vancouver authorities contacted the proper government authorities in both the United States and Canada. They received authorization to keep the sea turtle and it was placed at the SC Aquarium. Having lived more than twenty years with an unsuitable diet and in unsuitable quarters, it wasn’t the healthiest of creatures. It took a few years to restore her to health. The happy ending of the story is that she now has a wonderful home and is well cared for, even if she does have to eat in a box!
The South Carolina Aquarium is a terrific place to spend an afternoon. The “behind the scenes” tour was fantastic! When you go be sure to do the tour. If you’re lucky Jamie will be on duty. Maybe before we leave the area we’ll get to see the Hunley!