MYRTLE BEACH — It all started with a curious young Craig Atkins picking up seashells along a Florida beach with his grandparents.
Then came the 38-gallon aquarium he saved for, bought, and filled with fish like the Pacific blue tang.
“For a 10-year-old, it was a lot. That had been a goal of mine for a long time,” Atkins said. “I’ve always been fascinated with anything living in the ocean.”
That infatuation for marine life spawned a career that has led Atkins though a who’s who of aquariums in the United States and recently landed him in charge of Ripley’s attractions in Myrtle Beach, including the aquarium at Broadway at the Beach.
Atkins, 41, took the helm this summer in Myrtle Beach for a company that’s had a long history along the Grand Strand and one continues to evolve with more offerings. In addition to the aquarium, Ripley’s operates several attractions along Ocean Boulevard -- the Believe It or Not museum has had the longest run -- and company officials, though they declined to comment for this story, have long praised the business here.
Atkins is geared up to make the popular attractions -- which employ nearly 300 people during the summer -- even better. He wants to inspire guests to protect the environment when they leave by encouraging recycling or motivating someone to volunteer for sea turtle patrol.
“It’s all about having fun on vacation, but we can slip a little learning in there,” Atkins said. “I want people to leave our attractions feeling empowered. Now maybe they will go out and change their behavior.”
The work is more of a passion for Atkins than a job. He’s always been driven, working his first job in a pet store and landing a job taking care of fish at the Indianapolis zoo right after high school. Not only did he work there, he volunteered in other parts of the operation aiming to learn as much as he could.
“He’s driven, but not over the top,” said Mark Zobel, senior sales and marketing manager at Sea Life Aquarium at the Mall of America in Minnesota, where Atkins worked before taking the Ripley’s job in Myrtle Beach.
Sitting in the snack shop at Ripley’s Aquarium overlooking Broadway, Atkins rattles off a list of accomplishments like he’s ticking off items on a grocery list: He presented a research paper on breeding and rearing sergeant major fish in San Diego, became a certified diver when he was 16, started a dive safety procedure in Indianapolis and produced the first manual. Oh, and in his spare time he works on Italian cars and Rolls Royces after teaching himself the way around an engine, leads martial arts classes and grows citrus trees.
“I like to try anything and everything,” said Atkins, whose office is decorated with photos from some of his dives, as well as inspirational quotes from Thomas Jefferson and Rolls Royce and pictures of his two children.
With his background in marine life, Atkins is one who’d rather be diving in the tank with fish than creating the business plan to lure visitors to see it, though Zobel said Atkins has a knack for both. That’s a unique combination, because the top managers at aquariums typically come from the business side, Zobel said.
“He’s got a very strong marine biology background and understands the animals but he understands the business side as well,” Zobel said.
As the general manager in Minnesota, Atkins oversaw a multimillion dollar rebranding and redo of the aquarium that launched last year after the operation was bought by Merlin Entertainment.
“It was how much potential it had and the vision of the owners,” Atkins said. “I wanted to make that place great.”
After 15 years in Minnesota, Atkins was looking for the next thing when a friend told him about the Ripley’s job. He’s familiar with the S.C. coast -- he has family in the Charleston area he would visit every year -- and thought this would be a good fit.
“I’ve always loved the area and loved this aquarium,” he said.
Atkins also brings an enthusiasm and energy to Ripley’s attractions downtown, which are key businesses that lure visitors to that tourist core, said Dave Sebok, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Downtown Redevelopment Corp. who recently chatted with Atkins about Ripley’s potential downtown. Ripley’s has the Believe It or Not Museum, Haunted Adventure, Moving Theater and Mirror Maze along Ocean Boulevard in Myrtle Beach.
“They still play a major, major role in attracting people downtown,” Sebok said. “Craig appears to have good experience in managing attractions and is looking to be creative.”
Contact DAWN BRYANT at 626-0296 or at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_dawnbryant.