Mermaid shows made big splash at South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston

The World Famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids drew big crowds to the S.C. Aquarium during their performances at the Charleston tourist attraction last month.

April was one of the most successful months in the South Carolina Aquarium's 14-year history, thanks to a rare visit from a band of dancing mermaids.

The aquarium, which is a nonprofit organization, saw record attendance during the month it played host to the World Famous Mermaids of Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, a team of female entertainers who wear elaborate fish-tailed costumes and perform synchronized underwater dances.

Nearly 60,500 visitors came through the Concord Street attraction last month, when the mermaid act performed three shows daily from April 12-20 in the Great Ocean Tank among sharks, sea turtles and other marine life. The aquarium said it saw 60 percent more visitors and 41 percent more revenue during that nine-day period than the same span last year.

The only time the aquarium has exceeded that attendance for April was in 2001, about a year after it opened, when the attraction saw about 71,000 visitors, said Kevin Mills, chief executive officer.

Also, the aquarium last month saw record sales of on-site concessions, aquarium memberships and gift shop merchandise.

Kevin Kampwerth, the creative director who helped develop the mermaid program, said they decided to hire the performers for $3,000 because they had seen similar education-based aquariums achieve success with the mermaid shows.

"It's certainly a new trend we've been seeing in aquariums recently," Kampwerth said. "They've all had great success so we're really looking at other markets and paying attention to what has worked elsewhere."

The program was held the same week many schools were on spring break, which likely boosted ticket sales.

"Spring break seemed like an ideal time to really reach a targeted audience, clearly (the mermaids) attract families with small children," Mills said. "It allowed us to introduce a wave of new visitors and perhaps people who hadn't been here for a while to the animals within our care and to the conservation messages that we try to convey."

While the aquarium doesn't have any similar events on the schedule right now, Mills said there will be additions to the visitor experience in the next few years. The aquarium has a six-year plan called the Watershed Fund to improve its education, conservation and entertainment programs.

"We retired our debt a few years ago, and since that time we have been engaged in a variety of long-term planning in terms of how to better serve our mission, better utilize our facility and how to better engage the public," Mills said.

Next spring, the aquarium will launch its Shark Shallows experience, an interactive exhibit featuring sharks native to the area. A new tank will be installed on the terrace facing the Cooper River.

Also, the aquarium will move its sea turtle hospital to the first floor in 2016 so that attendees can view the rehabilitation center. Currently, attendees have to pay an extra fee to tour the hospital.

The sea turtle hospital will replace the Madagascar exhibit featuring African lemurs, which will have been in place for about four years. The exhibit space on the first floor was designed to feature new displays every few years, Mills said.

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail