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NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores (5 Important Tips to Enjoy!)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on March 11, 2024.

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If you are vacationing in Emerald Isle or Atlantic Beach (or anywhere else along the Crystal Coast), visiting the North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is a must!

While we love hitting the beach, spending a morning or afternoon at the aquarium is a great way to break up the days of lounging by the water.

We created this guide to share why the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores ranks high on our list for hands-on ocean life education and family adventures! Keep reading, and you’ll also find our tips for enjoying this wonderful place in Eastern NC!

Here’s how we’ve organized things:

  • Where is the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores?
  • History
  • NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Ticket Info
    • Memberships
    • Reciprocity
    • Special Discount Days
  • Important Tips
    • Exhibits (Freshwater, Saltwater, and Outdoor)
    • Virtual Programs, Education, and Community Outreach
  • More Things to Do Nearby (NC Travel Guides)

Skip ahead to any of the above sections, or keep reading about directions to this incredible aquarium and its history!

Read More: 100+ Unique Things to Do In North Carolina (Your NC Bucket List)

Where is the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores?

Address: 1 Roosevelt Blvd, Pine Knoll Shores, NC
Phone Number: 910-772-0500
Official Website

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

At 35,000 square feet with 298 acres of maritime forest, the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is the largest of our four North Carolina Aquarium units.

The other three include:

All NC Aquariums are part of the North Carolina Aquariums Division—a Department of Natural and Cultural Resources subdivision.

The North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is on the Bogue Banks barrier island, part of Carteret County. The Banks are part of a collection of destinations known as the Crystal Coast, from Cape Lookout National Seashore to Emerald Isle.

Five towns are on the Bogue Banks, including:

The NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores is reachable via the Atlantic Beach Bridge from Morehead City and the B. Cameron Langston Bridge from Swansboro.

You can visually travel to the Aquarium using the following maps:

History of the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore waterfall

This aquarium has a fascinating history to go with its exhibits and outdoor area. Here are some critical points along the way:

  • Originally a Marine Science Center, the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores opened its doors in 1976.
  • At the end of 2003, Pine Knoll closed for renovations but returned to the public in 2006. With that renovation, Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium tripled its capacity with 35,000 square feet and 298 acres of Maritime Forest.
  • Overall, tens of millions of visitors have visited the nearly 50-year-old facility to learn about the marine life that inhabits NC’s Crystal Coast!

With the various education about our ecosystem within the native regions of the NC, and beyond, we can see why tons of people revisit.

Read More: 125+ Important Facts About North Carolina You Should Know (History, Geography, and More!)

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Ticket Info

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore touch tank

Before you enter the Aquarium, you must purchase a ticket in advance. Please note that the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores requires visitors to reserve a spot for their day and time before their initial visit.

Sellouts do happen, so please don’t wait until the last minute if you plan to visit on a weekend or holiday.

Here’s a quick breakdown of admission prices:

  • Adults (Ages 13-61): $12.95
  • Seniors (Ages 62 and Older): $11.95
  • Military: $11.95
  • Children (Ages 3-12): $10.95
  • Ages 2 and Younger and NC Aquarium Society Members: FREE
  • N.C. Homeschool Families: One FREE Visit between June 1 and September 15, Monday through Friday. N.C. Homeschool ID Required.

Prices do not include sales tax.

Purchase NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Tickets Here

Aquarium Memberships

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore turtle

If you plan on visiting this aquarium and the other three frequently, we highly recommend opting for a membership instead of single-use tickets.

Purchasing and re-purchasing one-day visits adds up, and a membership costs about 4 visits for an individual adult ($59) and 2 visits for a family of 4 ($89).

Reciprocity with AZA Zoos and Aquariums

Not to mention, with the memberships (individual, couple, family, curator), you gain more benefits, too! Family and Curator memberships gain free or discounted access to AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums nationwide.

If you have a membership at any of these NC Zoos and Museums, you’ll get free or discounted admission:

Please let us know if any agreements change. We visit these places as often as possible and have discovered agreement changes on the spot.

Please call ahead if you have any questions.

Read More: 20+ Amazing Children’s Museums in North Carolina for All

Special Discount Days

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore fish

There are some special discount days where a membership or reciprocity agreement may not be needed.

For instance, Martin Luther King Jr. Day gives half off the ticket price to honor the civil rights activist, and Veterans Day gives no-cost admission to military members.

Read More: 20+ Fun Things to Do in Manteo and Nearby!

Before You Visit (Important Tips)

While all of them focus on aquatic life, you’ll find that each NC Aquarium unit (including Pine Knoll Shores) is unique and worthy of an individual visit!

Before visiting the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, we highly recommend following these tips.

Call Ahead

We’ve mentioned this multiple times and want to reiterate the importance of calling if you’re concerned about reciprocity, discounts, or anything else before you visit the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

The AZA even recommends always calling ahead to validate the latest information before visiting.

Start with the Indoor Exhibits

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore kids love it

After entering the Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium, we recommend you start with the inside exhibits. Here’s a breakdown of the ones we love:

  • Living Shipwreck: The “Living Shipwreck” is the largest man-made ocean habitat in NC, with over 306,000 gallons of saltwater. It’s also home to many aquatic invertebrates, including a green sea turtle, a Goliath Grouper, and various fish.
  • The U-352: There is a replica of the U-352, the German submarine that sunk in 1942 off the East Coast, at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. The U-352 was the first U-boat ever to be sunk by the U.S Coast Guard, now rests 115 feet below sea level, only accessible by professional sports divers and fish longing for cover.
  • Loggerhead Odyssey Exhibit: Another indoor exhibit is the Loggerhead Odyssey Exhibit. From shell to sand, follow the life of loggerhead turtles with this immersive exhibit. This program allows viewing the turtle’s natural lifecycle, from breaking their eggshells to crawling freely into the ocean tides.

You can also meet loggerheads that have been rehabilitated at the aquarium and learn about their day-to-day life, ecological threats, and personalities.

Read More: Battleship North Carolina (Visiting Our Namesake Ship and How She Arrived at Wilmington)

NC Aquarium Art

Not only do sea animals inhabit the aquarium, but art also does.

The Spadefish Gallery exhibits fascinating paintings and drawings that line the aquarium’s hallways. The art pieces rotate quarterly, with the style and ocean life varying.

Enjoy These Outdoor Activities

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore outside

As you imagine, all the activities are not bound to the facility’s walls. Outdoor activities include the play area with slides, a net, a children’s playset, and more.

Find this playground at the beginning of the Alice Hoffman Nature Trail and right off the Marsh Boardwalk.

Read More: Carolina Beach State Park (and 7 Great Things to Do There!)

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores Educational Programs

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore frog

As we all know, aquariums, zoos, and science centers are filled with education for kids and adults.

Since Pine Knoll Shores is the largest aquarium on the NC Coast, it makes sense that they would offer a diverse educational experience.

Here are some examples:

  • Virtual Learning: Teachers and students can schedule a virtual learning program for all ages.
  • Camps: For entertainment, the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores offers summer, spring, and winter camps. Campers dive into nature with outdoor programs like nature walks, hiking trails, kayaking, and beachcombing for seashells. But it doesn’t stop there! Campers can also go inside the aquarium with behind-the-scenes tours for up-close animal encounters like feeding and professionally guided animal care.

Read More: Cape Lookout Lighthouse (How to Reach and Enjoy This Iconic Place!)

Special Events at the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

If the regular day-to-day of this aquarium wasn’t enough, they also offer special events.

  • Weddings: Getting married? Guests can schedule a unique wedding ceremony with romantic and fascinating ocean life backdrops. Whether the guests want picture backgrounds for their rehearsal, ceremony, reception, or all of the above, the aquarium offers specialized event planners for the momentous occasion.
  • Children’s Birthday Parties: The NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores also throws birthday parties. Recommended for children aged 3-12, guests can enjoy classic birthday parties thrown by the aquarium staff. With a classroom for a two-hour party, live animal encounters, a supply of reusable eco-friendly water bottles, and a self-guided tour, the party hosts can purchase this package for $225 with a minimum of 20 participants.
  • Sleepovers: Guests can also sleep within the aquarium. With the 306,000-gallon tank, sleepover participants can roll out sleeping bags and enjoy the views of fish, replicas, and much more underwater fun. The sleepover prices are $50 per person and $45 for members. Sleepovers are scheduled in the fall, spring, and winter, with a minimum group of 15 and a maximum group of 30.

Read More: 25 Wonderful Weekend Getaways in North Carolina (For Families, Couples, or Just Yourself!)

Ready to Visit the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores?

NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shore first

Like the other aquariums and museums in this beautiful state, there’s something unique about the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. We’ll keep visiting to figure out just what that is, and until then, we hope you enjoy this place, too.

Are you planning on visiting the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores? Or, have you already gone in the past and looking to go again?

Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to share your Pine Knoll Shores Aquarium adventures in our NC Travel Facebook Group!

Things to Do Near the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores

The Aquarium is surrounded by tons of wonderful places on Bogue Banks and nearby mainland places. If you’re a day trip-lover like us, Wilmington is about 2 hours away, and New Bern and Jacksonville are within an hour’s drive.

Here are some places that are closer to the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores, though:

Atlantic Beach

6 miles away from the Aquarium (12 minutes)

Atlantic Beach

You’ll most likely be visiting the Aquarium from Atlantic Beach or Emerald Isle and we start with our family getaway. At least once or twice a year, you can find us parked at Atlantis Lodge in Atlantic Beach, just near the boundary with Pine Knoll Shores.

We usually hang out on the beach for most of our days here, but we also drive up to Fort Macon State Park after visiting the Aquarium.

Some great restaurants up and down NC-58 (Fort Macon Rd.), including:

  • Amos Mosquitos is a solid dinner spot, but get there as early as possible. We arrived at 5:00 pm on the dot and found a completely full parking lot.
  • The Crab Shack in Salter Path has huge seafood portions and tons of hush puppies ready to fill you up.
  • Crystal Coast Brewing is a great brewery with taps and cans for you to take home.
  • Shark Shack is our go-to for takeout!

Read More: 80+ Great Small Towns in North Carolina (+ Our Top 10 Picks)

Emerald Isle

8 miles away from the Aquarium (15 minutes)

Sunset at Emerald Isle

Emerald Isle is another great base for visiting the Aquarium and one of the best beach towns in North Carolina. It sits at the opposite end of Bogue Banks from Atlantic Beach.

Among the most popular summer destinations, EI can get very busy and you’ll see why.

The town’s shops and restaurants are ready to handle the traffic. Cap’n Willis Seafood Market has all you need to cook at home, too.

And while in Emerald Isle, ensure you’re on the beach when the sun goes down. You’ll enjoy some of the best sunset views in all of North Carolina.

Read More: 8 Beautiful Brunswick County Beaches to Explore

Fort Macon State Park

8 miles away from the Aquarium (15 minutes)

Fort Macon outside wall

After Mount Mitchell, Fort Macon State Park is the second-oldest North Carolina state park. It’s also the second most visited state park besides being one of the smallest in NC.

Fort Macon is a wonderful day trip whether you’re staying in Atlantic Beach or Emerald Isle, or if you’re coming from Morehead City and Beaufort.

This historic fort was built by North Carolina’s leaders to defend the two major Confederate seaports from the Union during the Civil War. Fort Macon saw action during the war and was under Union control after 1862.

When visiting Fort Macon State Park, walk around the fully restored fort and the nature trails. There is also excellent fishing and a protected swim area.

Read More: 15+ Enchanting Ghost Tours in NC for You to Join!

Morehead City

8 miles away from the Aquarium (20 minutes)

NC Coastal Towns Morehead City Waterfront

Morehead City is just over the Atlantic Beach Bridge and is another popular summer spot, especially in June during the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. That massive event brings people from all over to participate, including the greatest basketball player who ever lived (Michael Jordan).

Other fun events include the North Carolina Seafood Festival at the end of September and the beginning of October. I hope to participate as a judge at that fun event someday.

Throughout the year, the Morehead City Waterfront is a great place to go for a stroll and check out the water and boats passing by.

You may have it to yourself during colder months, but during the summer, people are coming from far and wide to grab a bite at one of Morehead’s awesome restaurants.

Our favorites include:

Read More: 14 Wonderful Winter Getaways in North Carolina

Beaufort

12 miles away from the Aquarium (25 minutes)

Beaufort NC Waterfront

Beaufort is a lovely place with quite a bit to do, so don’t get any ideas about being bored.

Stroll along Main Street and discover great local restaurants and chic boutiques along the water.

Also, don’t forget to grab some grub at Beaufort Grocery CO and Moonrakers. The latter will give you a nice view of boats, Taylor Creek, and Carrot Island.

The wild horses of the Rachel Carson Reserve were the main reason we first stopped by Beaufort, and we were hooked on the town. You don’t need a lot of luck to see the horses from the waterfront, but you can get a closer look by hiring a boat to the Reserve (try Crystal Coast Ecotours).

Don’t forget about the North Carolina Maritime Museum in Beaufort either! They have some cool things to see throughout the year, but watch for special events.

Read More: How to See Outer Banks Wild Horses (Tour Info, History, and More!)

Swansboro

20 miles away from the Aquarium (35 minutes)

Waterfront pink skies Swansboro

Swansboro sits between Jacksonville and Cedar Point and is a perfect stop before driving over to Emerald Isle. The town is primarily known for its wonderful waterfront.

We love walking around Front St browsing in shops, and finding a great place to eat in Swansboro.

You can also take a boat from Swansboro (also, from Hammocks Beach State Park) to reach Bear Island, just across the inlet. It’s one of the best places to go shelling and enjoy some isolation along North Carolina’s coast.

Read More: 13 of the Most Interesting Historic Towns in North Carolina (Important Places for Your Next Adventure!)

More Things to Do Nearby (NC Travel Guides)

We’ve featured the NC Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores and these nearby places in many of our North Carolina travel guides. Here are a few of them.

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