Sharks Inspire Science In The WNC Mountains

Jan 10, 2019

A few weeks ago, we introduced you to biologist Rebecca Helm who moved to Asheville to study jellyfish.  While working on the piece, BPR’s Helen Chickering connected with  another marine pioneer  -  who brought sharks  and marine science to Hendersonville. 

Its lunch hour in downtown Hendersonville. Brenda Ramer is in her office on Main Street, sitting underwater feeding sharks   

“They know exactly who she is, the largest one loves to be pet, and just and sit in her in lap.”` Says Kortney Clark who works with Ramer here at the office, the Team ECCO Aquarium and Shark Lab.  Clark is watching Ramer who is inside a giant fish tank, in full scuba gear hand feeding and petting the sharks.

“We've hatched and raised them so they’ve been with us their whole lives,” says Clark, “They have a bond with us just like a dog, they know us by sight and sound and by our electrical impulses.” 

You’ve probably guessed by now, these aren’t the sharks of scary movies.  These are bamboo sharks and are small, striped and look a bit like a catfish with shark fins.  They are one of dozens of species of ocean fish and tropical animals living here at the nonprofit marine science education and research center -   more than 200 miles from the nearest ocean.  Brenda Ramer, the shark whisperer, is the founder and executive director. We talked before feeding time.

“We are very unexpected,” says Ramer,” We are a great little treasure here in Hendersonville and it all started in my kitchen in 2001.   I was teaching school and did some surveying and found 60 percent roughly of our mountain children don't see blue water.  They have to learn about it as an eco-system but don't have a lot of hands-on practical experience with it and I wanted to make that change.  And here we are with the first inland aquarium.

Around 10-thousand people comes through the aquarium every year, more than  3-thousand are students who get a hands-on marine life education lesson Aquariums filled with reptiles and exotic tropical fish line the walls.

“This is our venomous tank,” says Ramer, “We have an Orange Toadfish that’s in here, that’s a Sea Goblin and see that little brown blob in the sand?  At night that opens up to about as big as your hand and that is an octopus anemone.”

The centerpiece is the nearly 2000 gallon shark tank that is also serves research lab where they are looking at the impact of things like water quality and  lighting on health. Ramer says almost everything in here is somebody’s experiment.

“I have a young lady from Hendersonville High School, this is her project on coral growth, she’s created it and is learning how to grow and care for coral.  She’s looking at the lighting and nutrition value in the water currents. “  . (Helen: it's so interesting, you are doing a lot of the research they are doing out in the wild - in captivity). Well our kids can't get there, so if we can give them that here - they are going to be one step ahead of game when they move out – that’s what I want.”

“When I started here my senior year-I wanted to be a pastry chef.”

That’s Kortney Clark , who we met earlier at the shark tank, Clark says – something clicked when she was helping  care for a sick sting ray..

“When I started here my senior year-I wanted to be a pastry chef-and we got a sting ray that got sick and there was nobody to help us,” says Clark, “and that kind of change my mind - there is nobody that does this in this area and kind of made me want to go into the medical field,”

Today, Clark is Team ECCO’s assistant director and is in school to become a vet tech and her focus is marine animals.

HC: “Do you ever look back and go oh my gosh, I just wanted to give kids an experience and here you are?

“I do!” says Ramer, “When former students come in that’s the question they always ask, is did you ever think you'd end up here?  The answer is no!  When I started  thought volunteer and talk to schools, but to be able to offer a piece of the ocean is, It’s’ phenomenal!  I can’t even explain it.

You just have to see it for yourself - On Main Street in downtown, Hendersonville I’m Helen Chickering BPR news.