Since opening the St. Augustine Aquarium in December, Co-Owner Kathy Hiester said her favorite part of the journey has been witnessing the reactions of the kids that visit.
“Their faces light up,” said Hiester, who founded the facility on State Road 16 with her husband Shawn. “Just to see the fish swim through the coral reef habitat, they’re amazed. It’s not something you can walk in the water right off the beach here and see.”
The aquarium features 32 Florida species and more than 300 marine animals, and offers several attractions for kids. Hiester highlighted “Shark & Stingray Cove” as a fan favorite exhibit, saying that the kids enjoy the experience of feeding sharks, stingrays and fish. She also noted that a shark tooth dig exhibit recently opened that allows kids to pick out different sharks’ teeth, identify them on a key and then choose a favorite to take home.
For the more adventurous visitors, the aquarium offers the “Snorkel Adventure,” which provides the opportunity to swim up close and personal with sea life in a natural Florida reef environment, including more than 200 Florida reef fish and a few cownose rays that were recently added. “They’re just majestic looking as they swim through the water,” said Hiester about the rays, noting that the aquarium provides snorkeling participants with a wetsuit, snorkel, mask, booties, vest and the assistance of a marine biologist/lifeguard.
Each museum habitat features an educational presentation given by marine biologists, who discuss topics ranging from why horseshoe crabs have blue blood to the overall depletion of fish stocks and reefs in the ocean.
“It holds a huge educational component,” Hiester said. “Many people will look at the horseshoe crabs and ask me if they’re rays. That’s just a testament to the void of the education and awareness of what we have right off the coast.”
Hiester and her husband Shawn have always been passionate about marine biology and decided to open the aquarium to share their passion with the community and raise awareness about the importance of marine conservation through education.
“When people see and understand these incredible creatures, they will realize how critically important it is to protect them,” the Hiesters say on the aquarium website.
In April, the aquarium is also opening the “Castaway Canopy Adventure by Zipstream,” a guided zip line tour with climbing walls, bridges and more. With the zip line in place, phase one of development for the aquarium will be complete. Consequently, Hiester said they’ll be holding a grand opening event for the aquarium in late April.
Phase one of development includes the 80,000 gallon “Snorkel Adventure” exhibit, “Shark & Stingray Cove” exhibit, seahorse and other hands-on habitats and the coming zip line tour. The second phase of the aquarium will consist of several ecosystem-specific habitats in a new building, including a recreated dock piling, rock jetty and shoreline. Hiester expects the building to open between fall and December, adding that the second phase will also feature a new gift shop and restrooms and expanded parking.
A planned third phase of development, Hiester said, will allow visitors to experience an 18th-century shipwreck reef surrounded by sharks, while submerged in a shark cage. The shipwreck will be modeled after a vessel that sank off the coast of St. Augustine and will include cannons and a variety of other artifacts that were recovered by an archaeological team. Timing of that project is to be determined.
The St. Augustine Aquarium, which currently hosts birthday parties, educational field trips and summer camps, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tickets are $8 for adults and $5 for children, with “Snorkel Adventure” tickets costing visitors $35.