Hendersonville’s homegrown aquarium expands its legacy
Many kids who grow up in and around Henderson County are missing something. It’s the same thing Brenda J. Ramer, founder and executive director of the Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO, missed growing up on the banks of the Ohio River. “If you do a survey of Western North Carolina, 60 to 65 percent of our kids have never seen blue water,” Ramer says, referring to the water found in the open ocean.
It wasn’t until Ramer was in her thirties, snorkeling in the Florida Keys, that she realized, “Oh, my gosh! We need to teach all of this to our kids.”
The Aquarium and Shark Lab Ramer started in her kitchen in 2001 has been on Hendersonville’s Main Street for ten years. What began as a grassroots ocean learning program has evolved to include homes for more than 275 fish, invertebrates, reptiles, and salamanders. The aquarium displays two dozen exhibits, including a new 2,000-gallon shark study tank.
A child who’s only seen sea life in books can suddenly watch a California stingray lie on her belly on the surface of the water and spit at guests. “She’s the biggest photo bomber in the world,” says Ramer, who adds that the sea creatures “know us when they hear us come in in the morning. They know what our voices sound like through the glass and through the water. When we get in the tank to hand feed them, they show favorites, and can tell us apart by the electric impulses of our bodies.”
As part of the North Carolina environmental educators, Team ECCO subsists on a steady stream of student interns who “build real relationships with the animals,” Ramer says. On the aquarium’s main floor, interns run the show. In addition to animal husbandry, they design exhibits, test water quality, and keep up with all of the required skimming, plumbing, and drilling of acrylic and glass. Most students stay in the program for an average of five to six years before going on to work at aquariums across the country.
One former intern became the director of animal husbandry at the University of Central Florida. Another did an internship with Disney at the Living Seas at Epcot. “Morgan Walker came through my program, did some student-teaching with me, and got her degree in Marine Biology. She ended up going down and spending three years at the dolphin research center in the Keys and now works for [UNC-Wilmington] at their MarineQuest program.” Ramer adds that she loves watching students’ dreams “expand out” beyond the confines of their hometowns.
Among the facility’s newest attractions in progress is a coral-reef display that “shares knowledge about coral bleaching,” says Ramer. She wants to take a group of kids down to the Bahamas to help rebuild hurricane-damaged reefs. However, serious conservation efforts — while literally saving our planet — don’t come cheap.
“[The aquarium] is a pretty expensive place [to maintain], and COVID didn’t help us much,” Ramer admits. She mentions the chemicals to keep the water ocean-balanced, filtering, lighting, circulation, plumbing, emergency vet visits for sick animals and insurance. “Our power bill is more than most people pay for two houses.”
Several local businesses have stepped in to help cover needed electrical and plumbing. “Hajoca put in a hot-water tank for us,” Ramer says. “The city has always been a supporter of us.” The Community Foundation of Western North Carolina and the Henderson County TDA have also helped.
Individuals or businesses can become tank or education sponsors, too. “We’ve been doing remote classes for the Henderson County public schools. Teachers can sign up for a 30-minute class and we don’t charge them for it.”
Ramer is excited by the aquarium’s newly intensified focus on environmental education. “We’re at the groundbreaking level here in Henderson County,” she says. “I just became certified as an atmospheric teacher with the American meteorological society.” She is only one class away from becoming a certified climate specialist.
Through the Aquarium’s “Sea Base,” Ramer can design a STEM curriculum for both standard and nontraditional classrooms. “I can be flexible to teach what teachers ask me to teach.”
As student interest reached new levels, a rebranding took place that included a simpler eye-catching logo, more social-media posts, and a new website with the tagline “The Aquarium That Inspires.”
“To inspire people to learn more,” explains Ramer. “That’s what we’re here for.”
Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO, 511 North Main St., Hendersonville, currently open 1-4pm Thursday through Saturday. The aquarium will present the First Annual Balloon Festival in May. Balloon artists will make life-sized sculptures out of biodegradable balloons, including a six- to eight-foot tall pirate ship complete with a balloon crew. On Saturday, May 8, at noon, a “Sea Swim” will travel down Main Street from the Aquarium to the Historic Courthouse. The event is still seeking balloon sponsors. (The public can watch the balloon sculptures being made at the courthouse 12-5pm on Friday, May 7.) For details on special events, changing aquarium hours according to state COVID mandates, and education programs, visit teamecco.org.