Ucluelet’s innovative catch-and-release aquarium still a main attraction nearly a decade later

The Ucluelet Aquarium has a touch tank where people can explore sea life found right out in Ucluelet Harbour. Marine creatures in the tanks are circulated and returned to the harbour after a certain amount of time. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
The exterior of the Ucluelet Aquarium is an inviting sight to anyone approaching by water. (PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER POUGET)
The interior of the Ucluelet Aquarium features tidal ‘touch’ pools and numerous other tanks filled with sea creatures captured in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Vancouver Island. (PHOTO COURTESY BLUESKY ARCHIVES)
Visitors to the Ucluelet Aquarium will find all sorts of different West Coast fish and other marine life among the tanks. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
This particular tank at the Ucluelet Aquarium started out as an empty tank in 2011 with a single slab of cement. Everything now living in this tank entered as pelagic larvae throughout the aquarium’s open flow system. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

BY S FULLER

Special to the News

If one would want to name one building which epitomizes the breathtaking, West Coast village of Ucluelet, it would be its aquarium.

Located between land and ocean; the creation of a community initiative by an environmentally-aware citizenry, it literally stands on a site where the now fast-growing town’s centre meets the inlet, a place which is Ucluelet’s harbour, having been recognized by its first inhabitants as a safe haven on the rugged West Coast, a coast which has seen its fair share of shipwrecks.

Mindfully constructed, highish up on stilts on its ocean side, so as not to disturb the sea creatures which dwell in the intertidal pools, it extends on to the land where it takes up its place between businesses and the Ucluelet district municipal building.

The bright blue building—shaped to evoke a big fish—is striking but modest, eye-catching but small, tucked in but outstanding.

It definitely speaks to its environment but it also references outside influences.

There is the whale-like, fish-like shape which speaks to Ucluelet’s fishing history and commercial beginnings but it as clearly evokes the work of Canadian-American architect, Frank Gehry, with its sloping roofs and walls, sometimes whimsical, always imaginative, sensitive to the place but also reaching out further to places afar.

West Vancouver-based architects, Blue Sky Architecture, clearly grasped what was needed to bring to life the community’s ecologically-sensitive vision for Canada’s first catch-and-release aquarium, a project which has gone on to inspire similar projects of small community aquariums world-wide, says the Ucluelet Aquarium (UA). The Alberni Aquarium and Stewardship Centre, located at Harbour Quay in Port Alberni, has a similar philosophy with its tanks.

The outside of the building alone can capture one’s attention for hours as one examines it motifs, ocean-facing walls which connect the inside of the building’s marine life with that of sea creatures in the ocean outside.

There is much to marvel in the details, both inside and out.

There are motifs along the walls of the Ucluelet Aquarium, which delight and amuse and there is the thoughtful design element which locates restrooms just outside where others, not necessarily visiting the aquarium, can use the facilities, be they visitors or residents.

This consideration is evident everywhere—for the environment; the sea creatures which are released back to their homes from which they came after their season visiting the aquarium; helping those on land to learn more about the creatures which live in the ocean and fostering the knowledge that the health of the ocean and the health of ocean communities, like Ucluelet, are inextricably linked, connected and interdependent.

The ecosystems of ocean, land and sky are connected, the aquarium teaches at every turn.

While, thankfully, more people are becoming aware of this truth with climate change, it showed great foresight by those who conceived of this project 16 years ago in 2004, erecting a makeshift structure before the community was able to realize its dream as it has in the current space. The aquarium as it stands now, opened its doors in 2012.

It was a grassroots initiative with the levels of government only coming in later when the hard work of residents had shown that their vision was possible and a long-term learning and awareness building facility was viable.

The First Nations community, the town’s oldest inhabitants, joined forces with the other communities that followed them, all donating materials, time and ideas, and using local builders and materials, before the various governments stepped in with some funding.

As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child: It took the hardworking and committed village of Ucluelet, known as Ukee to locals, to built their vision into what it is today, where people locally and around the world can come to learn from sea creatures both about their evolution over millions of years and the evolution of all biological processes.

It is expensive to maintain even a community aquarium and Ucluelet’s relies on an army of volunteers alongside its knowledgeable staff, as well as donors drawn from across the business community and residents.

I was most happy to see that I had given my business to a good number of the businesses listed on the aquarium’s website. This reinforces the idea that it is the epitome of Ucluelet:

It is a dynamic and foward-looking place which honours its traditions and communities, as well as the land and ocean that provide its inhabitants with a place to live and, for many, a way to make a living.

People in Ukee recognize the bounty they have been given and are happy to give back where and when they can, often with a feeling of general solidarity across communities, and, most often, with a high degree of style!

The aquarium may have been makeshift in those beginning days, housed in a converted construction trailer, but anyone visiting the space felt the community’s energy and were inspired by its vision, as I did when we first visited in 2007.

The influence and regard in which this relatively small organization is held now has grown enormously over its decade and a half’s existence.

The aquarium recently reported that it had its most successful season ever in 2019. Seasons run from March to December.

Sea creatures are caught in February and released in early December.

The staff clean tanks and do other housekeeping in December, January and February to make the space ready for the next season,

This past season saw 34,000 visitors, a remarkably number for a town of around 1,600 permanent residents!

This past year there was much excitement over the hatching of skates discovered in an egg casing— a phenomenon that attracted four million online viewers and counting. The aquarium documented the skates’ growth on its Facebook page.

The aquarium remains firmly rooted in the community no matter its ever long reach outside. On release day in December 180 residents came to help carry the sea creatures back to the inlet. Bucket carriers ranged in age from the very young to older citizen scientists.

This year the season begins on March 1. Admission is free on that day and the aquarium will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

A family season pass for two adults and their children is only $65 for the nine months. Daily admission is a reasonable $15 for adults, $8 for youth, and $11 for students and seniors.

Given it has changing exhibits and there is a lot that goes on at the aquarium, there is no fear that one would not use a season’s pass enough or ever get bored with this learning environment. The facility is significantly interactive and was designed by Blue Sky architects to break down the barriers between visitors, workers and scientists, allowing the most interesting things to be seen by visitors such as the preparations, and caring for the sea creatures.

Seeing, feeling and smelling, they argue, enhances learning and engagement.

And it’s certainly fun for the children, who make up many of its visitors, and an important audience for building the future awareness the aquarium has as its mission.

The main tank for viewing is connected to the smaller tanks and all are are filled with water from the inlet, just outside, which is pumped both in and out in mindful and energy conserving ways.

This process alone is fascinating. It is no wonder the maintenance and operations officer calls himself a “water wizard.”

The aquarium’s work reaches out to other venues—talks at Big Beach, the beach on the other side where one faces the rugged coastline, and at the Kwisitis Visitor Centre at Wickaninnish Beach.

As well, it tests the levels of radioactivity of the water frequently, and puts out useful information such as on being a responsible beach goers, as well as forms alliances with groups such as environmentally-aware surfers.

In Ukee all seem to get how important it is to be responsible stewards of the land and ocean.

(S Fuller is a dual British and Canadian citizen who worked as a journalist for Reuters before immigrating to Canada in 1987 from South Africa, where she was a civil war correspondent. Between immigrating and freelance writing she earned a PhD at UBC where she taught in the anthropology and sociology departments. She has family that live in Ucluelet and is an enthusiastic visitor to the west coast—especially the aquarium.)

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