From left, visitors from Strathmore, Alberta, Rick and Pam Kobluk check out a sea star being held by Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith Cochrane along with their daughter Keely at one of the aquarium’s roughly 20 touch tank exhibits on March 1. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

From left, visitors from Strathmore, Alberta, Rick and Pam Kobluk check out a sea star being held by Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith Cochrane along with their daughter Keely at one of the aquarium’s roughly 20 touch tank exhibits on March 1. (Photo - Andrew Bailey)

Ucluelet Aquarium swings open new season

“We’ve got thousands and thousands of organisms in here.”

Thousands of fascinating ocean critters are ready to shine under the Ucluelet Aquarium’s inspiring spotlight.

The aquarium’s season officially began on March 1 and curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane was excited to show off the unique catch and release facility’s new exhibits.

“We’ve got thousands and thousands of organisms in here, but what people will probably focus on are the many different kinds of rockfish that we have, our brand new little octopus and our salmon habitat exhibit,” she said. “We’re excited to see everyone and for everyone to come back and see all of the work that we’ve done. There’s a lot of projects that we started last year that we want to build off of and keep the momentum going, especially around rockfish conservation.”

The aquarium traditionally opens at the start of the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, but opening day was held early this year.

“We decided that we wanted to open at the beginning of the month to reflect how Ucluelet is getting busier, to show support for the other businesses that are opening earlier in the season and to be here for all of the visitors that are here to watch storms,” Griffith-Cochrane said.

She added that a particularly powerful storm in January made the aquarium’s collection process a tough slog as heavy winds and crashing waves destroyed habitats that aquarium staff have been collecting species from for the past decade.

“We see storms as a spectator sport, but it has a profound and very violent effect on the organisms along the coast,” she said. “That can be really good. It can open up new habitat sites for other animals to move in and can keep our local ecosystems biodiverse and rich but, when it gets too violent, it can also be very harmful.”

She said that, along with showcasing local species and habitats, the aquarium plans to increase its educational offerings for youth this year and expand the microplastics survey it began last summer.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of debris, but we’d like to know what that is made up of and how it’s distributed,” she said.

The aquarium operates with six full-time staff with diverse backgrounds.

“Running an aquarium is very complex because it’s not just about the animals that reside in here. It’s also about maintaining pumps and polishing tanks,” Griffith-Cochrane said. “There’s a lot of pure, gritty, messy maintenance that goes into keeping this place functioning. So our staff members need to not only be able to make things look beautiful and talk about the animals that are in here, but make sure that everything is flowing really well.”

She added the keystone of the Ucluelet Aquarium experience is the interpreters.

“The B.C. coast is one of the most incredible places on the planet. We have beautiful biodiversity and animals living complex, long, lives in a very dynamic environment,” she said.

“It’s important that we have people here to be able to tell those stories so that we understand the value of these organisms and we’re able to better protect them and then look at our behaviours and see how we can support our local ecosystems while still enjoying and living on the coast.”