Thousands of animals are ready to head home after spending the season educating, inspiring and delighting West Coast residents and visitors at the Ucluelet Aquarium.
The aquarium is shutting down for the year on Nov. 30 and is hosting its annual release day event on Dec. 4.
“There will be a few differences because we’re still in the middle of this pandemic, but we’re hoping it will be as normal as possible for everybody who comes out,” aquarium curator Laura Griffith Cochrane told the Westerly News.
The release will run from 11 a.m. until noon and anyone interested in participating is reminded that enthusiasm is high each year, meaning the animals are happily carried off and released at the Whiskey Dock in short order, so late-comers might miss out.
The aquarium consistently releases more animals than it collects each year as a bevvy of new inhabitants frequently arrive through the facility’s water pipes.
“We will be releasing everything from the skeleton shrimp that come in and colonize the habitats that we showcase in here, to the rockfish that we go out and dive for,” she said, adding that the public release day event helps deepen connections between residents and their surroundings. “The connection that you feel when you take part in that act is really important. When you’re releasing something back into the wild, you feel connected to it and that connection can inform good behaviours and can make sure that we’re feeling the need to care for the ecosystems around us.”
She explained the aquarium’s catch and release model allows the relatively small facility to showcase “a wide variety” of different animals and also ensures that what’s on display is a realistic look at the local harbour’s community of sealife.
“Especially for season’s pass holders, we want to make sure there’s something new for them to look at whenever they come in,” she said. “This also gives us the opportunity to not just represent what’s possible in the area, but what’s happening in real time. Depending on the season and the temperatures and the currents, there’s a different arrangement of species each year…What you see each season is a snapshot of what is happening in real time in the ecosystem.”
The aquarium was the first of its kind when it first opened as a ‘mini’ aquarium that launched founder Philip Bruecker,’s vision into reality in 2004 and has released the animals collected each season to ensure each critter can contribute to their ecosystems and fulfill their biological destinies by successfully reproducing.
“Phil wanted to create a place that would increase our ability to build our connections to place, our connections to the ecosystems that support us, and also create an aquarium with a reduced ecological footprint and that’s something that because of our style of operation and the staff and the resources we have, we’ve been able to accomplish,” Griffith Cochrane said.
She added the aquarium plans to reopen on March 1, 2022, and will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its current facility in June.
She said that the aquarium is coming off another solid season, despite navigating through turbulent waters created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Like so many other local businesses, we faced a lot of challenges with COVID impacts and there were a lot of things that we had to change to our operations to deal with COVID regulations, moving things around so we can make this place as safe as possible for the visiting public,” she said.
She added baby skates provided one of the most popular exhibits at the aquarium this season and the arrival of a scarcely seen sunflower star brought hopeful excitement.
“Something super, super special that we’re really excited about is one of our staff members found a baby pycnopodia, a baby sunflower star, and that’s a species that has become endangered after the effects of sea star wasting syndrome and this is the first one that I’ve seen in about four years, so we’re really excited about that,” she said.
She said summer’s visitation numbers were down from previous years largely due to capacity restrictions related to the pandemic, but the aquarium has seen a swarm of visitation in the fall with “some of the highest visitation numbers ever experienced” in October and November. She added the community’s support and love of the facility has buoyed the aquarium through the pandemic, which has seen other facilities falter.
“Unlike many aquariums, we did not have to lay off staff, which is something that I think is so important to recognize. There have been so many people that were really harshly impacted by this pandemic and we were able to reduce those impacts within our organization because the community has been so supportive of us,” she said. “It’s incredible. I can’t really emphasize it enough, but we wouldn’t be here without the community and we feel pretty lucky about the support that we’ve gotten.”