As our education director, Brian Thill, led a group of second-graders from a nearby city school into the South Carolina Aquarium, he felt a tug on his sleeve. A small boy looked up at him, pointing to the mouth of Charleston Harbor just beyond.
“Hey, mister,” the boy said. “Is that the ocean?”
Whether by circumstance or choice, far too many children are divorced from nature. The South Carolina Aquarium exists to provide an antidote. We provide a window into the wild, offering access to animals that are otherwise out of sight and out of mind. We recreate biomes that are inaccessible to most of us, from mountain bogs to the deep sea. We stimulate children of all ages to ask questions about their role in the world as stewards of the environment. And we invite moments of empathy for some of the most endangered species on our planet. We know that to care for species, you first have to care about them; in a sense, you have to fall in love.
Following a recent article in this paper about attendance at local attractions, a number of readers suggested that the aquarium is not accessible to all. We are always looking to open our doors as widely as possible, and we invite the public’s ideas as we consider opportunities to provide affordable admission beyond the many open-access programs we already operate.
Each year, thousands of schoolchildren from around the state enjoy free STEM curriculum in our classrooms. Our award-winning Structured School Program was developed in partnership with educators and administrators to align with state and national science standards. Because of capacity, we intentionally skew admission to schools that demonstrate the highest percentage of children enrolled in free or reduced lunch programs. In addition, we offer a deeply discounted admission for other school groups visiting on field trips, and we supplement their visit with free educational resources.
Our ongoing partnerships with organizations such as MUSC, Charleston Promise Neighborhood, Meeting Street Academies, Chucktown Squash, the city of Charleston’s First Day Festival and others have helped to increase access to communities in need. We are grateful for community support of our Angelfish Fund, which makes these opportunities possible.
Of course, we recognize that many schools are simply unable to visit the aquarium due to distance or cost. For several years, our Aquarium Rovers outreach program has taken educators and animals to schools, community centers, public libraries, hospitals and other public venues around the state. We also have introduced a distance learning program that provides live-streamed instruction to classrooms around the world. Last year, these programs served more than 18,000 students of all ages.
While we appreciate the accommodations tax grants we have received over the years from local and state government, the fact remains that we receive no recurrent tax support for operations. Our annual budget is derived entirely from earned revenue and generous private contributions. Last year, 72 percent of our budget was directly applied to our education, conservation and animal care mission, with the balance spent on supporting business operations.
Still, we know we can and should do more to provide greater access to our community. Throughout this year we have been engaged in strategic planning to chart our course through 2025, and we are actively considering ways to expand our classroom capacity for our free education programs, and to create even greater opportunities for families of all means to visit the aquarium.
Since opening in 2000, the South Carolina Aquarium has welcomed nearly 9 million guests, including more than 1 million students. We believe that an informed citizenry, informed by prevailing science, can better safeguard our future and the future of wildlife and wild places. Some will arrive and see, perhaps for the first time, a glimpse of the ocean and the creatures that dwell there, and begin to fall in love.
Kevin Mills is president and CEO of the South Carolina Aquarium.