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Team ECCO Ocean Center’s ‘touch tank’ is top attraction


Micayla Bedoian holds a hermit crab, Kortney Clark shows a chocolate chip sea star and Ashley Mew holds a brittle sea star.

By Pete Zamplas- Something is very fishy in downtown Hendersonville, as families can feel a new aquatic adventure at their fingertips in “hands-in” learning.

Team ECCO Ocean Center and Aquarium at 511 N. Main St. unveiled a new 100-gallon “touch tank” in March. In its first two months, it has been the non-profit aqua center’s top attraction, according to Team ECCO volunteer Executive Director Brenda J. Ramer. The former teacher founded Team ECCO in 2001, housing it downtown for five years.

The custom-made, mobile open-top tank is five feet long, 32 inches wide and three feet deep. Ramer is grateful 27 business and individual donors and the Henderson County Travel Development Authority collectively contributed the $10,000 to buy it. It cost $500 more to equip, mostly for a filter and chiller system. Water base and sand systems “cured to develop living ‘good’ bacteria to handle animal waste and human dirt from hands,” Ramer said.

“This new tank serves as a ‘hands-in’ experience,” another step as a “force in marine education,” she said. “You can reach in and touch and even pick up” sea creatures, with assistance from trained student volunteers “aqua guides.” Around seven out of 10 children are bold enough to dip a hand into the tank, Ramer and volunteers said.

Species in the tank include sea stars, urchins, anemones and crabs. Sea stars look least imposing and most welcoming, while people most avoid spindly spider crabs, Kortney Clark observed. The Blue Ridge Community College sophomore, an aspirant marine biologist, is among Team ECCO youth intern volunteers.

Her colleague, Ashley Mew, noted a brittle sea star lives up to its name in feeling brittle. She is intrigued by how it tickles her, to hold it. Chocolate chip is among sea star varieties in the tank. Clark noted it is fun when a sea star sticks to her hand, applying suction.

Nick Dirks, 6, recently said a pencil urchin felt “sharp.” He and his sister Daisy are children of Mike and Bethel Dirks, and attend special aquarium classes such as about sharks and stingrays.

Sea stars form a star, with five arms extending from a disk. Like starfish, they crawl across the bottom propelling with flexible, slender arms. Each one’s mouth has five jaws, ingests food and ejects waste.

Mew, an Australian native, is finishing her sophomore year at Hendersonville High (HHS). Micayla Bedoian, another volunteer, is a junior in HHS. She was top shot blocker, on the volleyball reigning 2-A state championship squad.

She is fascinated by the hermit crab’s many “little needles.” These crabs loose in the sea outgrow shells, search for new ones in the sea, and will fight rival crabs for those shells. In captivity, their growth is stunted so they do not outgrow the shell too much to instinctively feel vulnerable to predators. When molting they might look for a large shell to hide in. Or they can squeeze into a small shell, with benefit of less sand spilling into it when they bury themselves to hide.

The center has 20 displays of more than 75 marine and freshwater species. Most popular include perky small turtles, also the fluidly-flowing stingray in the largest (400 gallons) tank. Gallant lion fish (Mew’s favorite) fan out venomous quills when feeling threatened.

Bedoian likes how turtles swim in a mini-pond up front, and literally “come out of their shells.” They often curiously pop heads out, and crawl onto rock toward onlookers.

Wolf and Hazel Hoelscher brought their visiting grandchildren Liam, 6, and Nayelli Hoelscher, 2. They were wowed by the large stingray. Stingrays spit water at times, Clark noted. With flat bodies, they dig into sand to hide in open sea. Their eyes are on top and mouths on the bottom; they bottom feed and have to smell prey or use shark-like electroreceptors.

The newest attraction is a tiny baby bamboo shark. It was born May 7. It was removed from its leathery egg case, and shielded in a spice jar for clearer viewing. It was attached to its nutritional egg sac. The shark is alone in a smaller tank.

Next, Team ECCO is raising $50,000 for a huge shark and stingray tank, Ramer noted. The next Concert for the Seas is by singer-guitarist Chelsea Lynn LaBate Saturday, May 17 at 7-9 p.m. in 2 Guys Pizza and Ribs. Tickets are $5 or $10.

This past year, the aquarium had 9,000 visits. Ramer added that “we document animal behavior, hand feed, and maintain and filter everything ourselves.” The aquarium is a recognized REEF Field Station, lion fish education site, Turtle Survival Alliance supporter and National Marine Educators Association member. Ramer networks with aquariums curators in three other states.

Aquarium hours are 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat.; and, for groups, 9 a.m. to noon Wed.-Sat. and 9-3:30 Tuesdays. Admission is free on periodic Community Awareness Days, otherwise $3 for patrons ages 4-84 and free for others. It costs $2 each in groups of 10 or more. Those 60 or elder get in for $1.50 on Wednesdays.

For details on exhibits, programs, fundraisers or aquarium and diving-snorkeling trips, call 692-8386 or check www.teamecco.org.

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