The Ucluelet Aquarium is back in action as the unique catch and release facility celebrated its second opening day of the season last week.
The aquarium had opened its doors on March 1, but shut down roughly two weeks later due to the coronavirus pandemic. During the closure, aquarium staff continued to care for the colourful cast of critters that were collected from local waters to educate and inspire this season’s patrons.
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The aquarium’s curator Laura Griffith Cochrane explained that collecting and releasing its ocean animals is a costly endeavour that eats up a large portion of the aquarium’s annual budget, so the animals, as well as the staff who care for them, remained at the facility throughout the closure.
“We were hoping that we would have the opportunity to open again this summer and we decided not to do a big release and to keep our full team on continuing our animal care,” Griffith Cochrane told the Westerly News. “We just did all of that behind the scenes and we’re really happy that we are able to open and invite the public back in.”
The aquarium reopened on June 10 with new COVID-19 measures in place, the most noticeable of which is the absence of touch tank exhibits.
A hand-washing station has been set up outside the facility and patrons are asked to follow arrows that guide them through a one-way loop around the aquarium while staying within their groups and maintaining social distancing with others.
“Unfortunately, because we are encouraging people to use soap when they wash their hands in here, we can’t open the touch tanks because soap can be very dangerous to a lot of marine life and so can hand sanitizers,” Griffith Cohrane said. “Operating a collect and release aquarium means that you always have a lot of plans because nothing ever goes exactly the way you think it’s going to. Anyone who’s ever lived on a boat or operated a boat would be able to tell you about how, anytime you’re working around saltwater, stuff changes all the time and you have to adapt. So, we always have backup plans and projects on the go that we can pick up if a project we were hoping to continue with has to be put on hold for a while. Right now, we’ve just been getting excited about all the backup plans that we had sitting around waiting for the perfect time.”
Senior staffer Laurie Filgiano said she was grateful to continue working during the aquarium’s closure, but was anxiously waiting for the opportunity to interpret this season’s crew of critters to patrons.
“There’s something so special to be able to share this place with the public. It was so cool to spend the springtime being able to see all of the transformations because so much transforms in the waters throughout the spring and we love showing that to people,” Filgiano told the Westerly. “I missed that personally, a lot, so I was so excited to have people come in and share everything that has been changing over the past couple of months here…We have so much to tell people right now. There’s so much information about the ocean that we want to share with you.”
The aquarium is particularly thrilled to be showcasing black-eyed hermit crabs for the first time in about a decade as well as about five pregnant striped surfperch that are each expected to give birth to about 40 baby fish in July.
“That will be really exciting to watch those mamas get bigger and bigger before they bring their young into the world,” Griffith Cochrane said.
She added that, by showcasing a variety of sea creatures through educational and entertaining experiences, the aquarium helps inspire deeper understanding and love of the marine environment.
“We’re tied to the ocean. Our economy, our culture, our recreation, our joy in life is tied to us being able to interact with the sea and we need healthy ecosystems to be able to do all of those things. So, if we’re not able to provide resources and educate and also to gather stories from people and to learn from others, then we risk losing all of those opportunities,” she said.
She added that the community’s support during the closure was “super important,” and that many tank sponsors continued their sponsorship and community members consistently asked how they could help.
Sponsorships are still available and other innovative ways to donate are in the works.
“All of that support allowed us to keep our staff employed and allowed us to look forward and see a future of us opening for the summer and that means the world to us,” she said.
“If anyone is looking for ways that they can support the aquarium now that we’re open again, because we are going to see reduced visitorship this year, we have a few sponsorship opportunities that are still open and you can always donate on our website or you can just come and visit us; that’s my favourite way for people to show us support.”