S.C. Aquarium back in swim

The popular Penguin Planet exhibit, which ended its run in October, helped boost attendance at the S.C. Aquarium.

Playful penguins, an albino alligator and a new 4-D theater drove visitors to the S.C. Aquarium last year at the fastest pace in five years.

The waterfront tourist attraction in downtown Charleston welcomed 443,812 people in 2010, about 1 percent more than in 2009. Not since 2005, when 446,109 visitors walked through the doors, has the aquarium seen so much traffic.

So far this year, the Concord Street facility has seen 144,441 visitors, spokeswoman Kate Dittloff said.

"We are very happy with the numbers year to date," said Kevin Mills, the aquarium's president and chief executive. "We continue to trend upward."

Also, the aquarium said it is doing a better job of attracting Lowcountry residents.

"This past year we had more local people than tourists," said Don Higgins, treasurer. "The number of local people who keep coming has just skyrocketed, while the number of tourists has slowed down. We hope as the economy comes back, the tourists will come back as well."

Driving the increase in local visitors is an increase in aquarium memberships.

Higgins said Lowcountry residents visit the facility and want to come back again, so they become members.

The attraction, which opened in 2000 and paid off its debt last year, brought in $8.7 million in revenue last year, well ahead of the $7.6 million for 2009.

After expenses, the aquarium saw a tidy profit of $1.7 million in 2010, Higgins said.

The aquarium continues to ramp up its fundraising efforts and recently introduced it's new advertising campaign, "Let's go sea."

In March, a new "Madagascar" exhibit featuring lemurs and other exotic animals from the island off the east coast of Africa will debut, and aquarium officials hope it will give the facility the financial boost that the moneymaking Planet Penguin exhibit brought in. The penguins departed in October after a 19-month stay.

"We need to have an early win out of the gate," Mills said. "This will appeal to kids and families."

In March of last year, the aquarium unveiled its 7-foot, 100-pound albino American alligator, one of only 50 in the world. In June, it opened the state's first four-dimensional "immersion" theater as another revenue source.

Key figures from the past 10 years at the S.C. Aquarium

2010: $8.7 million // 443,812 (attendance)

2009: $7.6 million // 440,265

2008: $6.5 million // 394,859

2007: $6.9 million // 427,497

2006: $6.7 million // 437,802

2005: $7 million // 446,109

2004: $6.9 million // 437,823

2003: $7 million // 484,751

2002: $8.4 million // 541,633

2001: $10.6 million // 563,103

Source: S.C. Aquarium