Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane beams over sea stars in her aquarium’s touch tank exhibits that offer patrons hands-on educations about local sea creatures.

Ucluelet Aquarium spawns inspiration

Break out your ogling eyes and stoked smiles West Coast, the aquarium’s doors have opened.

Break out your ogling eyes and stoked smiles West Coast, the aquarium’s doors have opened.

The Ucluelet Aquarium has been packed with patrons since kicking off its fifth season last month.

“This is the best start we’ve ever had,” said aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane.

“It’s really exciting to be constantly seeing new people who are excited about the Coast and coming to experience Ucluelet for the first time.”

With hands-on touch tank experiences and a team of biologists ready to explain every creature, the Ucluelet Aquarium offers a unique oceanic education.

Griffith-Cochrane said the personal connections the aquarium fosters between patrons and ecosystems help shape the facility’s unique vibe.

“Sometimes it might be like going to an art gallery, there’s some aquariums where they want to awe you with the possibility and the beauty of the exhibits and I see us as more of the artist’s studio. It’s messy and it’s gritty and you may get your hands wet and you can touch things and see what it feels like and what it smells like and hopefully leave with this deeper understanding,” she said.

“That’s our experience that we’re looking for; we’re trying to create this connection for people.”

The aquarium added a new experience to its roster this year with the facility’s maintenance staff ready to tour patrons through the science behind the exhibits.

“They’re going to be shown our pumps, they’re going to be shown our filtration systems and how the aquarium functions,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

“It’s like operating a space station; you have all these things that cannot breathe and cannot be healthy unless everything is working perfectly, so we’d like to be able to introduce people to a little bit of that and all the work that goes into it.”

These tours will run every Wednesday morning at 11 a.m.

The aquarium also plans to boost its youth programming.

“We’re hoping to be able to run some free summer labs that would be available for all kids,” Griffith-Cochrane said adding labs would focus on specific local species.

“We would teach any kids that are interested, whether they’re from in town or out of town, about those species and why’ they’re important, how they reproduce, and the role that they play in our ecosystem.”

She said expanding young minds is important and she has been thrilled to see local kids thirsty for knowledge about their surroundings.

“A lot of kids are really interested in what’s going on in the wild. We’re seeing a lot of young volunteers coming into the aquarium and a lot of really great questions so we want to be able to provide answers,” she said. “That’s really important because this is the environment that all those kids live in…It’s important, since we are ocean people, to have a good understanding of the ocean and how it affects us.”

The Ucluelet Aquarium hatched from a much smaller facility dubbed the Mini Aquarium, which was the first catch-and-release aquarium of its kind when it opened in 2008 and Griffith-Cochrane said the awe that tiny facility inspired in its patrons was years in the making.

“Our founder Philip Bruecker used to come out to the Coast to collect species and he was really fascinated by all of the life that was out here,” she said. “Phil did years of water testing before even experimenting with the mini-system that was here.”

The Mini’s success gave credence to the idea that the Coast could support the larger and more dynamic facility locals and visitors now enjoy and Griffith-Cochrane said the   West Coast’s support was vital.

“It was all of the local support and all of those donations at the beginning that got the ball rolling and allowed us to be taken seriously by other groups,” she said.

“It really takes a large group of people and a supportive community to make something like this feasible.”

The current building opened on June 1, 2012 and Griffith-Cochrane has watched it exceed its lofty expectations and inspire other communities to consider catch-and-release models.

“It was a unique idea and the idea is catching on,” she said. “We are seeing a large interest globally.”

She said the building that was the Mini is now a catch-and-release aquarium in Campbell River and a new catch-and-release facility will open in Port Alberni this year.

An original member of the Ucluelet Aquarium Society launched a catch-and-release facility in Newfoundland and another like-minded aquarium recently opened up in Scotland by a woman who fell in love with the catch-and-release idea while touring Ucluelet’s aquarium, according to Griffith-Cochrane who added she is constantly communicating with other groups interested in launching similar facilities.

She said the catch-and-release model gives each animal an opportunity to continue its story and fulfill its biological destiny and also allows the aquarium to stay fresh as various species come and go.

“Our aquarium exhibits are not just what is possible on the Coast, but what is actually going on on the Coast,” she said.

“The catch-and-release system allows you to really put people in touch, not just with the individual species, but with the whole ecosystem and to understand that things are fragile; to create a respect and a connection with people and also to put it in context of a bigger picture.”