By Sarah Obeid 

CONCORD – As the largest shopping and entertainment destination of the Carolinas, Concord Mills has expanded further by adding on a new, exciting attraction.

The mall welcomes Sea Life – a 36,000-square-foot aquarium with more than 5,000 creatures swimming in 150,000 gallons on water. Sea Life opens to the public Feb. 20. 

The Charlotte-Concord Sea Life includes 20 themed zones where guests can get up close and personal with a wide variety of sea animals, including moray eels, southern stingrays, moon jellyfish, sharks and a giant Pacific octopus. Not to mention small seahorses, clown fish and hermit crabs.

Guests are not simply spectators. The experience goes far beyond viewing a tank of underwater animals.

Visitors will take a tour stopping at each display tank, starting with the introduction room for family photos and ending with a kids soft play area filled with slides and sea animal coloring books.

The entire attraction comprises of a huge saltwater ocean tank, an underwater viewing tunnel, interactive touch pools and a retail store.

“I think the 180-degree ocean tunnel and the sea horse nursery will be the most popular spots out of all the zones. These places provide opportunities to take photos and allow children to poke their heads through the exhibits,” said Jack Stevenson, marketing manager of Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium. “We bring guests face-to face to the aquarium stations. We want them to feel immersed into the environment.”

The tunnel makes it easy for guests to observe sharks and rays swimming overhead. The sea horse nursery is a child favorite because they can crawl around.

The touch pools serve as an education tool as guests have the chance to learn about and touch sea stars, sea urchins, hermit crabs and other invertebrates.

One of the stations labeled, Stingray Bay, is designed to hold special events and corporate outings.

The entertainment does not stop here.

“At the shoal, silvery fish swim in a 360-degree direction. It’s a magical adventure,” Stevenson said. “Shark Shipwreck is another well-liked spot as it looks like you are inside of a ship at the very bottom of the sea.”

Eerie music plays in the background to set the mood. The giant Pacific octopus will be coming to the shipwreck soon.

Currently, the aquarium only covers 26,000 square feet of space. Stevenson explains that Merlin Entertainments, owner of Sea Life, plans to expand and use the rest of the aquarium. The goal is to introduce something every year and build on what is already in place.

For 2015, organizers hope to start a Black Box Room, which could include a turtle exhibit, a claws exhibit with a 14-foot crab, as well as special events.

Sea Life is designed to increase awareness concerning protection of endangered sea species and help guests understand the marine environment.

During a preview event, children wore shirts with the words, “Young Environmentalist” on the back.

With smiles on their faces, 10-year-old Will Joseph and 11-year-old Emily Bell said they are excited to return to the aquarium soon. Both won an essay contest, giving them a free pass to experience the aquarium early.

“My favorite fish is the Rover fish because it has big teeth,” Bell said. “I love seeing endangered species representing their natural habitats at this aquarium.”

Joseph also has a favorite sea creature – the baby porcupine fish.

“I named the porcupine fish ‘Winky’ because he was winking at us,” Joseph said. “Young environmentalists work with fish, such as Winky, to keep them away from pollution and keep them protected.”

Staffers foresee an optimistic future for the Sea Life aquarium.

“We love seeing peoples faces light up as they point to the fish at each tank,” Stevenson said. “It only reinforces why we are here. People are so thrilled and this keeps us highly motivated.” 

Want to go? Charlotte-Concord Sea Life opens 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon-7 p.m. Sundays at Concord Mills, 8111 Concord Mills Blvd, Concord. The last guests will be admitted one hour before closing. Tickets cost $21 for adults (13 years and older) and $17 for children (ages 3-12). Details: www.visitsealife.com/charlotte-concord.