The Ucluelet Aquarium has wrapped up its best season ever.
“This has been our busiest season yet,” said aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane. “We saw what would be an average number for a total year by the beginning of September.”
She said she was particularly stoked on the number of returning visitors the aquarium welcomed this season.
“More people coming back means we are providing a service to people that they enjoy,” she said
“We’ve had a lot of people come back to stay in the community and explore for a few days which has been great…That means they’re becoming very excited about this area and it means they’re really passionate about learning about our local ecosystems.”
Learning about local ecosystems through the aquarium’s hands-on interpretative experiences helps tourists and locals appreciate and nurture their surroundings, according to Griffith-Cochrane.
“Having basic knowledge about the ecosystem can influence a lot of our behaviours,” she said. “It’s important for people to have a little bit of knowledge about how our ecosystems work so that we’re more functional moving within that environment.”
Along with providing an indoor space for tourists to find shelter during rainy weather, Griffith-Cochrane said the aquarium adds a uniquely educational twist to the West Coast experience.
“It puts us on the map as not your typical vacation destination but a place you can go to learn and be active within the community,” she said.
“We’re one of many groups out here that provide really great educational opportunities and work experience opportunities and that’s valuable to people who are trying to plan their summers and maybe want their kids to learn something valuable at the same time.”
She suggested tourists “are really craving a lot of knowledge right now,” and have bought into the West Coast’s budding educational vibe.
“A lot of people are really excited to expand their knowledge,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people that are really excited about learning and I think that’s a really great thing.”
The aquarium also brings educational value to locals through school programs and volunteer opportunities.
“If they’re really interested in biology they can learn a lot about local ecosystems and about species biology but it’s also an important opportunity for people to learn job skills,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
“Because we’re a small community there aren’t a lot of resources and we would like to be a resource wherever we can.”
The aquarium catered to this year’s banner crop of patrons thanks to three University students hired through the federal government’s Canada Summer Jobs grant, according to Griffith-Cochrane.
“Our summer students are a major bonus to us, there’s just no way we could operate without them,” she said adding the aquarium caters to roughly 250 patrons everyday during the summer compared to roughly 50 in the winter.
The aquarium will close for the season on Nov. 29 but will start collecting new specimens in February to have new exhibits in place when it reopens in March.
“We have a couple of pretty exciting things that we might be unveiling which I might tell you more about in the spring,” Griffith-Cochrane hinted.
One exciting project she would let out of the bag is a new ‘Be a Better Beachgoer’ program the aquarium will launch in 2016 to help tourists evolve into environmental stewards.
“We are seeing this great increase in visitorship and that’s wonderful but we also want to make sure that that great increase is happening in a really positive way so we’re going to start a program to help people protect our beaches when they come out this way,” she said.
She said the program would include how human behaviours can impact marine mammals.
“There’s a lot of seals and sea lions in our area and there’s also a lot of seal and sea lion entanglements in our area,” she said.
“Because it’s so expensive for a single disentanglement to free one of those guys we think that awareness and changing behaviours are the best way to protect those species.”
The Ucluelet Aquarium began as a small temporary structure dubbed the ‘Mini-Aquarium’ in 2004 and moved its touch-tank exhibits, interpretive ideas, and catch-and-release model to its current and much larger digs in 2012.
Anyone interested in learning more about the aquarium and the society that runs it is encouraged to attend a Nov. 28 Annual General Meeting at the Aquarium at 3 p.m.