A bittersweet celebration filled Ucluelet’s Whiskey Dock on Saturday as the West Coast gathered to send their local aquarium’s critters back into the wild.
Dozens of locals and visitors were lined up, buckets in hand, to participate in the Ucluelet Aquarium’s Dec. 7 annual release event to give each creature a chance to fulfill its biological destiny.
The release marked the end of another successful season at the Ucluelet Aquarium, with curator Laura Griffith Cochrane telling the Westerly News “it was our best one to date.”
“We had some wonderful, really engaged visitors,” Griffith Cochrane beamed. “A lot of the visitors that arrived here were returning and were excited to learn more and to expand on what they learned on their last visit.”
Along with generating return visits from locals and tourists eager to check out the constantly changing exhibits made possible by the aquarium’s unique catch and release model, Griffith Cochrane said the popular community facility also enjoyed a steady swarm of first time visitors who had read about the aquarium and traveled to Ucluelet to experience it.
She dubbed the past season “The Year of the Skate” and explained that one of the most eye catching draws came by way of a skate casing discovered in August 2018 that hatched inside the aquarium this summer.
“The major animal highlight for us was the hatching of our little skates,” she said. “We weren’t sure if [the casing] was fertilized, viable eggs, but it turned out that it was and we were able to create a viewing window in the egg casing so that we could watch the development of the young skates all the way until June when they hatched.”
Skates gestate for about 9-11 months and, after waiting to see if the eggs had been fertilized, the aquarium was delighted to see three baby skates emerge.
The delightful looking creatures, which feature happy-face-like appearances, seem biologically designed to delight and instantly became an internet sensation for the aquarium.
“They’re so cute…They have little openings close to their gills on the underside of their face which are filled with chemo receptors, acting like nostrils, so it’s just luck, well physiology, that the position of those look like eyes,” she said. “We’ve had a number of things reproduce in the aquarium in the past, but they were definitely the cutest. Whenever we posted something online, we got huge responses, lots of people engaged and interested and asking questions and wanting to learn more.”
The Ucluelet Aquarium’s catch and release model hasn’t just educated and awed ocean animal fans since its inception in 2004, it’s also inspired a global movement towards adopting the model as similar facilities are popping up across the globe. That movement was on full display as the Ucluelet Aquarium’s 2019 season kicked off with the first-ever international mini-aquarium conference welcoming delegates from around the world to network and learn in Ucluelet.
“It was a really valuable opportunity for us to share some of our success stories and to learn from others,” Griffith Cochrane said.
She said the catch and release community aquarium model is still growing its legs, so opportunities for the small, passionate, teams trying to start them to meet and learn from each other is vital.
“Our hope is that this will become an ongoing conference that will take place every couple of years. Because we’re all small societies, budget constraints exist for all of us. So, it’s not something that we could do every year. We hope that this will become a regular thing that we could all contribute to,” she said.
Rather than see each other as competition, community aquariums are supporting each other’s efforts to sprout appreciation and respect for ocean habitats.
“Community based aquariums can represent local issues. We can talk about ecosystems that are important to us for culture, economy and recreation…It is important that people have the opportunity to learn about how fragile and valuable ocean ecosystems are and so, the more opportunities people have to learn, the better,” she said.
“One of the beautiful things about small aquariums is that each one can have important conversations and the network of us together creates a really large, powerful voice…A community aquarium is a wonderful way to bring educational opportunities to isolated communities like our own, a great way to represent local issues and a great way to assist in protecting local ecosystems.”
She added that the aquarium is proving that its model is economically viable, provided it has colossal community support.
“An aquarium is an expensive place to run. We run pumps 24 hours a day, tanks are expensive to maintain and the maintenance requires a lot of staff time, but we also have a very supportive and dedicated community and some wonderful sponsors and donors and that really makes up the difference,” she said.
“We’re growing and we’re really excited that we get to live and work in this community. It means a lot just to me personally to have meaningful work and to be able to live out here…I can’t imagine us without our community. That’s also why, I think, each new mini-aquarium will be so different, because it’s not just representative of the species; it’s also representative of the community. We could not operate without our supportive community. Between the volunteers, the directors, the sponsors and the donations that come through, we just wouldn’t exist without Ucluelet.”
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