Visitors just can’t hang out enough with the long-tailed lemurs at the South Carolina Aquarium.
Attendance at the waterfront tourist attraction on Charleston Harbor leaped by nearly 9,000 this year over the same period last year.
“Madagascar has been a huge hit,” said Kevin Mills, S.C. Aquarium president and chief executive officer.
The attraction attributed the jump in visitors since April 1, when the agency’s budget year begins and right before the animals arrived, to the diversity of wildlife and exhibits. But the ring-tailed lemurs are the main draw.
“It’s something new and different, and that’s always popular,” aquarium spokeswoman Kate Dittloff said. “We have seen a huge increase in locals.”
From April 1 to Sept. 27, the aquarium drew 284,022 visitors, up from 275,296 last year during the same period.
Visitors are tracked by ZIP codes, and the aquarium experienced about a 15 percent rise in those attending from the Charleston metro area this year, according to Mills.
“That’s translated into some very positive word of mouth for us in the community,” he said.
The Madagascar exhibit opened in early May when four ring-tailed lemurs arrived in Charleston to climb along branches, munch on grapevine leaves and raisins, then huddle together up a tree in a “lemur ball” for a midday snooze. They haven’t stopped.
The father, Chandler, and his three sons, Cebes, Herodotus and Limerick, are on loan from the Duke Lemur Center in Durham for the next three years. They are the centerpiece of a 4,000-square-foot exhibit that includes a Nile crocodile, chameleons, frogs, geckos, parrots, stingrays, fish, snakes and other exotic animals connected to Madagascar, an island off the southeast coast of Africa about seven times the size of South Carolina.
Its isolation from the African mainland has created a biodiversity hot spot where more than 70 percent of its wildlife can be found nowhere else on Earth.
The exhibit, primarily sponsored by MeadWestvaco Corp., could prove more popular than the highly successful penguin exhibit from a couple of years ago. Those ticket sales helped the 12-year-old attraction pay off its debt early.
Marissa Little and her relatives are among those locals who keep coming back to the aquarium.
The Isle of Palms resident brings her 2-year-old daughter Peyton about every two weeks.
On Friday, her niece Kaylyn Vorhis, 11, of Summerville, came along.
“I wanted to come see the lemurs,” Kaylyn said after watching the playful creatures scurry around their enclosure. “And the chameleons,” she added.
Little said the children know more about the aquarium than she does.
“They know where everything is,” she said. “You never see the same things. It’s always something different.”
Aiken residents Archie and Julie Luther and their daughter, Melissa, were all wide-eyed in their first visit to the aquarium Friday. They were especially giddy while their daughter participated in the short lemur lecture by being dressed up as one of the creatures as part of the show.
“It’s awesome,” Archie Luther said of the aquarium.
“We are going to come back,” his wife added.
The Madagascar display opened ahead of the third and final installment of the “Madagascar” animated movie series last summer, not by coincidence but to help heighten excitement for the exhibit.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.