Ucluelet locals Ian and Emma Riddick had a blast while checking out some sea stars at one of the Ucluelet Aquarium's unique touch tank exhibits.

Ucluelet Aquarium educates and inspires

"If we want to have these tourists coming out here to experience nature, we need to make sure that nature is well protected.”

The Ucluelet Aquarium followed up last year’s record setting season with an even stronger performance this summer.

The non-profit society led catch and release facility saw an average of roughly 6,000 visitors during the summer months highlighted by a July that saw 1,100 more visitors than 2015’s, according to aquarium curator Laura-Griffith Cochrane.

To cater to the increase, the aquarium upped its staffing levels to ensure its hands-on educational approach didn’t wane.

“It’s really important to us that we have enough people to talk to everyone and to make sure that we’re interacting with all of the visitors,” she said. “It’s a huge concern for us when we start getting these really high visitor numbers that we have enough staff and volunteers so we’re catering to every person who walks through the door because that’s our whole purpose; we want to talk to people.”

The aquarium was able to score six summer students through Canada’s summer jobs program, up from their usual four, and Griffith-Cochrane was thrilled with the stoke these students brought to visitor engagement.

“They were amazing,” she said of the summer staffers.

“They were so awesome; such a wonderful group of enthusiastic people. We couldn’t have survived without them this year. It was absolutely essential, not just in terms of visitor ship but it was another warm year and that meant a lot of algae growth and lots of cleaning.”

The aquarium also upped its educational approach in an effort to transform visitors into environmental stewards.

“Because we’re getting such an increase in visitors, we really wanted to see if we could be a little bit more involved with them and influence how they experience the West Coast so that they’re experiencing it in a more careful and caring way and we feel we influenced people’s behaviours for the good,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

“There’s a lot of very long-lived and fragile things that live out here and we would like for them to live long wonderful lives just like we want to live long wonderful lives.”

She added encouraging tourists to interact with the West Coast responsibly would help keep the West Coast’s tourist season running high as the area’s surroundings are its top selling feature.

“People come here because they want to experience these pristine coastal communities so if we want to have these tourists coming out here to experience nature we need to make sure that nature is well protected,” she said.

The Aquarium kicked off a new be a Better Beach Goer program this year that walked tourists, and locals, through simple steps towards sustainable enjoyment of local landscapes including carrying a tin to store cigarette butts, cutting down on single-use plastics and leaving animals where they are.

“Almost every week in the summer we get a phone call about somebody seeing what they believe is an injured animal or saying that they’ve rescued something but what is often the case is that, in our quest to do better, we sometimes do harm,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

“A lot of visitors will tell us stories about how they’ve saved stars; how they saw a star exposed because it wasn’t in the ocean and they’ve pulled it off the rocks and thrown it back in the ocean. But, a lot of stars, especially ochre stars that live in the intertidal zone, are used to that cycle and their bodies are built so that they have both time out of the water and time in the water and we actually hurt them when we pull them off the rocks.”

She said helping tourists understand local ecosystems helps them become more engaged and interested in them and that the community’s support of the Be a Better Beach Goer program showed locals valued the educational outreach.

“We got some wonderful support from a lot of the local hotels, bed and breakfasts and hostels. The community was super supportive about it and we really appreciated that,” she said.

“You never know when you’re starting something new whether it’s just your own priorities or whether they’re actually the community’s priorities as well and it was really great to see that these were also community priorities where the whole Coast is really excited about making sure we keep this place beautiful for generations to come.”

She added the West Coast’s support buoys the aquarium’s success from tank sponsorships, to supporting programming and pointing tourists towards the facility.

“We feel really well supported by the community,” she said. “We’re still fairly new to a lot of visitors and a huge portion of the visitors we get is because someone in the community has recommended them to come in here. So, we really wouldn’t survive without everyone around us.”

The non-profit facility needs strong visitorship to keep up with the high maintenance costs of 24-hour a day water circulation and larger bills are on the horizon as aging equipment will need to be replaced.

“We always call it the new building but this was our fifth summer and because we fill this building with salt water all the time we’re starting to reach a level where our maintenance and operations costs are going up significantly,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

“We’re at this really good level right now where we’re covering our expenses but we really have to start planning for the future…We’re not as new as we once were.”

The aquarium will remain open until Nov. 27 and its annual release day event is scheduled for Dec. 3.

The annual release celebration provides aquarium fans with an opportunity to say goodbye to their favourite critters as they release them back into the ocean to fulfill their biological destinies.

“It really reinforces the connections that we have with the species and with the ecosystems we return them to,” Griffith-Cochrane said. “We all live off of the ocean that surrounds us, so it’s really important for us to reinforce just how connected we are.”

She added each critter is inspected by a wildlife veterinarian before being released to ensure none of the animals bring harm to the environments they’re released to.

As Canada’s first catch and release aquarium, Ucluelet serves as an important role model towards how a sustainable and successful facility can be run.

“There’s a lot of interest in catch and release aquariums,” Griffith-Cochrane said. “It’s a great model for local communities, especially those that have really strong ties to the ocean, and it’s really important to us, because we’re the first one, that we do a good job.”