The South’s Best Aquariums and Aquatic Experiences

“Sharks! Predators of the Deep” is the newest experience at the Georgia Aquarium. (©Georgia Aquarium)

By Jennifer McKee

The Georgia summer is upon us. There’s nothing better than some aquatic fun to keep the heat and humidity at bay, which makes visiting an aquarium the perfect summer excursion. These engaging aquatic attractions are less than five hours from Augusta—join us on a tour.

Georgia Aquarium (2.5 hours from Augusta)

Augustans are lucky to have the largest aquarium in the Western Hemisphere practically at our door. It can be done in a day trip if you time your arrival with the aquarium’s opening; it’s a full-day experience. We like to begin with the first showing at Dolphin Coast, and work our way through the exhibits afterward. Don’t miss the aquarium’s signature draw, its whale sharks—they’re the largest fish in the sea and average 20 tons!

Whale Shark at the Georgia Aquarium. (©Georgia Aquarium)

The newest exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium is “Sharks! Predators of the Deep,” in which these beautiful predators glide through a 1.2-million-gallon tank. Love thrills? Try the aquarium’s new Shark Cage Dive encounter.

And here’s an awesome deal: If you have a Georgia ID, you receive free general admission to the Georgia Aquarium on your birthday.

South Carolina Aquarium (2 hours, 45 minutes from Augusta)

Representing aquatic life from the mountains to the seas of South Carolina, the South Carolina Aquarium is most famously associated with the state-of-the-art Sea Turtle Care Center that rehabilitates sick and injured turtles and returns them the wild.

A sea turtle is released back to the wild at the South Carolina Aquarium. (Courtesy SC Aquarium/Flickr Creative Commons)

In all, more than 5,000 species are housed at the SC Aquarium. In addition to the numerous species of turtles and tortoises (don’t miss the 220-pound loggerhead, Caretta, in the Great Ocean Tank), there’s an albino alligator, giant grouper, touch tanks, a salt marsh aviary and the Mountain Forest habitat, home the majestic Liberty, a bald eagle.

Tybee Island Marine Science Center (3 hours from Augusta)

Located on Tybee’s South Beach, the marine science center promotes the stewardship of coastal Georgia’s natural resources through education, conservation and research. It’s small but mighty, with exhibits on marine habitats such as Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary, which is 19 miles off the coast of Georgia and the only protected natural reef area on Georgia’s mid-continental shelf.

Black Sea Bass swim through Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. (©Greg McFall/NOAA)

In addition, there are programs that take you directly into coastal Georgia’s charms: guided walks on the beach, marsh treks that introduce you to Fiddler crabs and snails and turtle talks, during which you learn more about the lives of sea turtles.

Georgia Sea Turtle Center (3.5 hours from Augusta)

Can’t get enough of sea turtles? You’ll find that the Georgia Sea Turtle Center is a bucket-list experience. Not only are you able to view exhibits, watch turtles receiving care and being fed, but you can participate in sunrise turtle walks (August), which introduce you to beach ecology and the basics of sea turtle nesting and hatching. Night owls will prefer the evening turtle walks (June-July), in which you’ll also learn the above, then head to the beach in search of a nesting mother. Rides with night patrol and dawn patrol are available.

Beach walks at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center give you the opportunity to see nesting turtles such as this mother. (©David Evison/Shutterstock)

St. Augustine Aquarium (4 hours, 35 minutes from Augusta)

Don’t forget your swimsuit when visiting the St. Augustine Aquarium. This interactive, open-air aquarium lets you snorkel with reef fish and rays, and you can even feed them while doing so—just bring the aforementioned swimsuit, a towel and dry clothes, the aquarium provides everything else you need.

Those who aren’t into snorkeling can visit the touch tank with starfish, urchins and horseshoe crabs. There are also guided tours by marine biologists, educational opportunities and unique takeaways, such as paintings created by a resident shark. This new aquarium is still in the first of its three opening phases, so expect many more great things to come!

The St. Augustine Aquarium (Image provided by Florida’s Historic Coast)

North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher (4 hours, 35 minutes from Augusta)

Head north to this oceanside aquarium in Wilmington, North Carolina. The North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher sits directly on Kure Beach and lets visitors discover habitats from North Carolina and around the world. Touch rays, sea stars and horseshoe crabs, marvel at sea turtles and dig for fossils.

Who can resist a curious little otter? How about an otter family? Meet the brood in the aquarium’s latest exhibit, “Otters on the Edge,” in the aquariums conservatory. Be sure to catch them before 3:45 pm, when they retire for the day!

A family poses for a photo with a shark-tooth exhibit at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. (Photo courtesy of

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