By Emma Castleberry
While our region’s geography is rich with mountains, forests, rivers and lakes, the nearest coastline is many miles and hours of driving away for most Western North Carolina residents. This means that opportunities for local students to study and experience marine life are scarce. Brenda Ramer founded Team ECCO in 2001 to change that.
What started as a grassroots ocean learning program serving about 40 children and 10 adults has grown into a thriving nonprofit that serves a combined 10,000 visitors and program participants each year. After opening the state’s first inland aquarium in Hendersonville in 2011, Team ECCO has grown yet again. In 2017, Team ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium closed its doors to prepare for two major additions: a 2,000-gallon shark tank and a 400-gallon venomous fish tank.
To better reflect its mission, the center has now reopened with a new name: Team ECCO Aquarium and Shark Lab. “This project will allow us to continue to monitor shark behavior, development and feeding, and also do ray studies,” says Ramer. Team ECCO will turn its data in to the American Elasmobranch Society.
The shark tank currently houses three bamboo sharks, two large horseshoe crabs, two species of stingray, a grouper, a large tang and several sea stars, urchins and cleaner fish. The venomous fish tank is home to a lionfish, an orange toadfish, a frogfish, a walking batfish and a triggerfish. “The inspiration for the tank came from our shark Morgan,” says Ramer, “who is our first hatchling and our largest shark at just over 35 inches.”
The installation of the tanks— which required floor supports for their combined weight of about 24,000 pounds—was quite an operation. “We started working with Aqua Clean Systems out of Atlanta last April on plans for the tank,” says Ramer. The shark tank is the largest glass tank Aqua Clean Systems has ever built and the largest saltwater aquarium within more than 100 miles of Hendersonville. Volunteers and interns will step into the tank to feed the animals. “The glass was hand poured in Germany, flown to Detroit and transported to Miami, where the panels were assembled and sealed,” says Ramer. The tanks came as a pre-built system, so Team ECCO removed interior walls and displays on the main floor to make room for the installation.
Some private, individual donations went to support the project, but the main funds came from grants provided by The North Carolina Science Museum, the Community Foundation of Henderson County and the Henderson County Tourism Development Authority. “Team ECCO is a valuable member of our Main Street community,” says John Connet, city manager of Hendersonville. “There are very few mountain communities our size that have an aquarium. Team ECCO is a destination for local residents and out-of-town visitors and the new tank will allow them to expand their research and educational programs.”
Barbara Glassman and her husband, Stuart, are Team ECCO patrons and aquarium enthusiasts. “You cannot go into Team ECCO without feeling energized and a little bit more knowledgeable,” says Barbara. “The size alone of this new tank is stunning, but the scientific research done by staff and students will be invaluable.”
Team ECCO Aquarium and Shark Lab is located at 511 North Main Street in Hendersonville. For more information, visit teamecco.org or call the Aquarium at 828.692.8386.