Such wonderful things surround you.
The Ucluelet Aquarium will swing open its doors on March 12 and the West Coast is ready to pour in and ogle the unique catch-and-release facility’s fresh roster of oceanic critters.
The aquarium synchs its annual reopening with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival to get in on the excitement and help lure ocean lovers to the festivities, according to aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane.
“It’s a really important time for the community; a lot of people are coming out to the Coast and we love being part of community events,” she said.
While keeping mum on the specific exhibits being set up, Griffith-Cochrane said she’s excited every time the aquarium kicks off a new season and is particularly keen this year because of the significant renovations the facility underwent this winter.
“We saw an increase in the number of visitors last year so we’re trying to make every aspect of the aquarium a little bit more accessible,” she said.
“We’re creating more of a sitting and lounge area in the library so that more families can sit and read with their kids and hang out if they’d like to and we have some new things for people to see when they get here but I won’t spoil them, people can see when they arrive.”
She added the expanded library could help nurture curious young minds.
“There are a lot of great young families on the West Coast and a lot of those kids, because they live on the ocean, are really excited about the ocean so we’d like to be there for them and share our excitement and help them learn more about their own local ecosystem,” she said.
The aquarium began collecting this season’s slew of opening-day specimens last week and Griffith-Cochrane noted there is a formidable process to go through before any animal comes in.
“We can’t just run out and collect willy-nilly, we actually have to submit a species list and get permits,” she said adding the aquarium starts collecting every February and takes about a month to fill its early-season exhibits.
The catch-and-release model allows the aquarium to keep things fresh as new creatures are constantly arriving and providing accurate snapshots of seasonal sea-life.
“We like to be representative of not just what’s possible on the Coast, but what’s going on on the Coast,” Griffith-Cochrane said. “If we’re going out and collecting regularly then we’re showing what’s arriving at that time.”
She added the aquarium’s diverse specimens would otherwise be kept out of sight and, perhaps, out of mind.
“Because our water is so rich it’s not clear so it’s hard for people to see just how biodiverse this region is,” she said.
“If you were to go down to the Caribbean, you could sit on your yacht or your boat and look down and see 60-feet into the water and see all the corals and the fish. You can’t do that here but we have one of the most biodiverse regions in the world so it’s really important that people learn about how diverse and how special our ecosystem is so that they can protect it.”
She suggested the aquarium creates important connections and helps transform fans into stewards.
“Creating connections for people is one of the best ways to protect something,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
“If you’ve never been out to the Coast before and you just see the ocean as a big, vast, powerful thing you might not know that it’s actually incredibly fragile and that there are all kinds of little ecosystems and networks.”
This knowledge, she said, is as valuable to locals as it is to tourists.
“We’re so intricately tied to the ocean. We’re a fishing community and a healthy ecosystem means healthy fish, means healthy business,” she said.
She suggested the aquarium’s hands-on marine life experiences provide longer lasting lessons than lectures or pamphlets.
“If you can touch it and have an experience with it and feel it, that’s way more meaningful to people,” she said.
Along with putting eye-popping critters in front of locals and tourists, the aquarium serves as a valuable educational resource and significant changes in the ocean have local interest swirling.
“We saw two strandings of vellella vellala within a year and that’s crazy. We saw all kinds of species last summer that I’ve never seen before…There has been a lot of new experiences on the Coast that people are pretty interested to learn more about, ” Griffith-Cochrane said.
“There’s a lot that we are learning right now and it’s an exciting and important time to be diving in and looking at things.”
She added the Coast’s current bout of sea star wasting syndrome has piqued a lot of interest and noted sea stars aren’t just a keystone species, but the reason for the term.
“The term keystone species was coined after observing the behaviours of sea stars in Washington,” she said. “Sea stars are very, very, important…they have a huge impact on the Coast.”
She said the North Pacific Coast has the highest biodiversity of sea stars in the world and these species are key players in the West Coast’s waters.
“Sunflower stars are a big predator on urchins, urchins eat kelp forests, kelp forests are where a lot of rockfish and a lot of other fish species grow strong,” she said.
“Ochre stars create little patches where they eat all of the mussels and barnacles and then other things can move in and lay their eggs and other things come in and eat those eggs.”
She suggested the Coast’s current wasting disease epidemic isn’t the only threat to sea stars.
“One of the big damages to their population is currently the trade in them,” she said.
“A lot of people collect them, dry them out and use them in arts and crafts but because our ecosystems are currently affected with sea star wasting syndrome and because of this trade, most of which is illegal, sea star populations are collapsing and they’re looking at possibly listing some of our species as endangered.”