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It's a pirate's life for Ripley's visitors

Ready to walk the plank into piracy?

A walk into a room-size replica on a pirate ship's gun deck cracks into a sunken treasure of history.

The exhibit "Pirates - Predators of the Sea," at Ripley's Aquarium, opening Saturday, hits the high seas on an interactive, educational voyage into the underworld of sea predators such as William Kidd, Sir Henry Morgan and Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard.

Jessica R. Mula, the aquarium's marketing assistant, said the theme of pirates takes "a very, very unique" course, especially because of the history of buccaneers off the Carolinas' coast in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Disney releasing its third movie in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series this summer.

Two skeletal pirates capture the attention upon entry, and hammocks overhead showing rovers' method of shuteye at sea illustrate some lore of the life of plundering that prevailed for about 80 years into the early 1800s.

Animals also come out of the woodwork to make the visitor feel more at home in the hull. Guests get the chance to see other fish and critters not regularly on display with the usual thousands of other fish, said Tim Handsel, director of husbandry, but those species that pirates might have seen or kept, such as Panther chameleons.

Mula said aquarium officials have spent the past six to eight weeks setting up the exhibit in a swap with Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies. "Pirates" spent the past two years in Gatlinburg, Tenn. "Mars: The Search for Life," on display in 2006 at Ripley's in Myrtle Beach, was sent west to turn a wing of the other aquarium red.

With most of the "Pirates" setup done at night "piece by piece," Mula remarked how mornings walking in, she and colleagues would wonder at the transformation - "When did that happen? When did that go up?"

Handsel said extra care goes into the placement of the animal life in a special exhibit, such as temperature of tanks and enclosures.

Coldwater fish in "Pirates," such as cod, lumpfish and pollock, live in tanks kept at 55 F, Handsel said. The water reads 78 F for aquariums with porkfish, a queen angelfish and the two largest specimens, rooster hogfish.

The quarters for the chameleons take extra consideration for high humidity and periodic water spraying to replicate the reptiles' native tropical rainforest lifestyle.

"They like to get their water drops from leaves," Handsel said. "We allow them to do their natural behavior."

He views the visiting fauna and fish as adding to the already diverse component of care.

"Animals are animals," Handsel said. "They're always surprising you. This just adds to that. ... It's neat to see the public's reaction to new animals."

Species that would have lingered among the loot aren't left out of "Pirates," either.

Handsel called the two rats "cute and cuddly," and the inclusion extends to a containment of cockroaches "like you'd find on board a ship.

"There's hundreds of them," he said. "They're about the same size as local ones."


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If you go

What | "Pirates - Predators of the Sea"

Where | Ripley's Aquarium, Broadway at the Beach, Myrtle Beach

When | Saturday through at least year's end

Hours | 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays and 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays (open an hour later daily starting Monday)

How much | Free with regular admission (plus tax): $17.99 for ages 12 and older, $9.99 for ages 5-11, and $3.99 for ages 2-4

916-0888 or www.ripleys