Visitors will be greeted by the 8-foot-wide jaws of a megalodon, an extinct relative of great white sharks, in the reception area of the future Port Royal Sound Foundation Maritime Center on the banks of the Chechessee River.
The next room of the 4,800-square-foot exhibit building will feature suspended models of a tiger shark, a loggerhead sea turtle, bottleneck dolphin and cownose rays surrounding a ceiling painted to look like the bottom of a boat.
Other exhibits will include a 2,400-gallon tank with cobia, red drum and small sharks; a living salt marsh with ribbed mussels, periwinkle snails and fiddler crabs; and a shallow tank with fish and rays for visitors to touch.
The center, off S.C. 170 at the site of the former Lemon Island Marina, should be open to the public by May, according to the foundation's board members.
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It will also boast touch-screen exhibits and classroom space.
More important, foundation board members said, the center will give tourists and residents a greater appreciation of the Port Royal Sound area -- which stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to Hampton County -- and coach them on how to conserve the area's waterways.
"We are in the process of teaching people about their own area," Dick Stewart, the foundation's treasurer, said Wednesday. "The Port Royal Sound is a bathtub -- what we put in there sloshes around for a while. So let's make sure people know about it."
The foundation has raised nearly $3 million of the $3.5 million necessary to fund the project, maritime center director Judy Almand said. That's enough to finish construction and pay for all but seven of the planned exhibits, she said.
Most of the cash has come from private donations and grants from groups such as the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry and the Coastal Community Foundation, she said.
Less than 5 percent of the center's money comes from public bodies such as Beaufort County and the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, Stewart said.
Construction began two months ago and should be completed in spring, though some of the exhibits won't be finished until fall, Almand said.
Several displays will be tied to research the center hopes to conduct with other institutions, such as the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the LowCountry Institute.
"We see, in the future, this not only being a great place for education, but also for research," foundation chairman Michael Long said.
The sounds exhibit will allow visitors to listen to the songs of dolphins and fish picked up by a submerged microphone near the center.
A moon-and-tides exhibit will feature interactive displays explaining Port Royal Sound's large tides, which drive ocean water more than 20 miles up its tidal rivers.
Other exhibits, some rotating on a temporary basis, will be dedicated to history, including a room on the seafood industry and the ecology of the oyster, a timeline of Port Royal Sound and potentially a Gullah exhibit.
Almand said she expects admission to be free, but there will be a gift shop and membership opportunities. The foundation plans to collect fees from outside groups that rent the space for seminars or other gatherings. Donations are also accepted, she said.
In the center's education building, a classroom will be used by Beaufort County students, but will also be available to local organizations for environmental sessions on things such as rain gardens, which can reduce toxic stormwater runoff from lawn chemicals.
Stewart said the center will give those concerned with preserving and protecting the Port Royal Sound area a convenient hub where they can work together.
"People that live near the May (River) are concerned about the May; people that live near the Chechessee (River) are concerned about the Chechessee," Stewart said. "But these bodies of water are all connected, and the way to protect them is the same. (The center) can be a place where we work and learn to do that."
Follow reporter Dan Burley at twitter.com/IPBG_Dan.