Ucluelet Aquarium's touch tanks bring ocean critters up close 

Captured creatures eventually return to natural habit

click to flip through (3) PHOTO BY LOUISE CHRISTIE
  • Photo by Louise Christie

Healthy oceans equal healthy lives; the two are inseparable. That's the premise upon which World Oceans Day was originally proposed by the Canadian government at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

Touch tanks are a delightful way to demystify the marine world, about which much remains unknown. One of the best collections is on display at the new permanent replacement Ucluelet Aquarium, near Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

When Pique dropped by in March, staff members were stocking 34 tanks and two large exhibit pools. Assistant curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane explained that the aquarium was unique in that the marine species—which were gathered locally in late winter by a team of divers led by marine biologist Philip Bruecker (whom she credited with founding the aquarium)—will gradually be returned to nearby waters between October and December.

Some species, such as a juvenile giant Pacific octopus that had been caught in a lingcod trap by local fishers, would be released as soon as they outgrew the confines of the largest tanks. "At most aquariums, such as in Vancouver and Monterey [California], big species steal the show," she said. "If you don't have those things, people get a chance to admire smaller creatures."

Griffith-Cochrane said the two features that set the dockside facility apart from others is that half the exhibits are in touch tanks. "As well, at least two staff members attend the touch tanks while constantly talking to our visitors. There are lots of demos for everyone to feel and smell marine life. Unlike a lot of aquariums that are more like museums, nothing here is hidden. We want people to feel like they are as close to an ocean experience as possible."

B.C. environmental activist Eric Enno Tamm, author of Beyond the Outer Shores, about pioneering ocean ecologist Ed Ricketts, expounded on the correlation between healthy oceans and healthy lives to Pique by phone from the Ottawa office of Ecotrust Canada. "Our planet is inappropriately called Earth when it should have been [called] Ocean. So many biological functions relate fundamentally to the ocean. Every other breath we draw depends on its oxygenation process. On a secondary level, the ocean provides us with some of the tastiest foods. The seafood industry is one of the last vestiges of hunter-gatherer culture. As such, we need to make sure we encourage fishing in a sustainable way. As humans, we need to be stewards. The Ucluelet Aquarium's touch pools get tourists enthused about marine life. That's important, especially as we know that this generation of kids is so disconnected from the environment."

If anyone can hold children's attention, it's 28-year-old Griffith-Cochrane, whose communication talents include the ability to speak to youngsters rather than talking down to them, such as when describing how crabs give birth to thousands of young after nesting like hens on their eggs, or pointing out sea slugs as one of her favourite species: "When I saw this yellow one, I got really excited about studying oceanography."

Such enthusiasm must surely influence children, who will inherit Planet Ocean for more than a day.

Access: Ucluelet lies on the west side of Vancouver Island, 280 kilometres from Whistler via Nanaimo on Highway 4. For info on the Ucluelet Aquarium, see www.uclueletaquarium.org. The writer stayed as a guest of the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet.

Pique contributor Jack Christie is the author of The Whistler Book. For details, visit www.jackchristie.com


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