Here is Laura Griffith-Cochrane doing a predator demonstration for our course. The Sunflower Sea Star (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in front of her is one of the more formidable predators on this coast. Many invertebrates, such as the cockles Laura is holding here, have evolved specialized adaptations for sensing and avoiding these predators.
This humble aquarium was founded on grand ideas. Several features distinguish it, as far as I know, from any other aquarium in the world. Our hope is to provide an alternative model for institutions of its kind.
One distinguishing feature of the Ucluelet Aquarium is that all display specimens are collected from local waters. Most visitors to this region, and even some locals, are surprised at the amount of colour and diversity in these waters. Personally, I would like to see more regional aquariums like this one. This model of a regional aquarium, highlighting local diversity of each particular region, is superior to the current model of the industrial aquarium, where one sees the same collection of tropical fish. Not to mention, more sustainable.
A second distinguishing feature is the visitor interaction with staff. This openness is built into the aquarium's design. All of the piping and hardware is exposed to public view, eliminating the distance between staff and visitors. This layout helps to relax visitors and invite their curiosity -more like a marine lab than a museum. Combined with the many touch pools, this is a great environment in which to roll up one's sleeves and explore.
A third noteworthy feature of this regional aquarium is its low ecological impact. All of the creatures on display are released back into the wild at season's end. Compare this to the biological impact of a large industrial aquarium that sources most of its species from coral reefs in developing countries. Further to this theme, the Ukee Aquarium is a flow through system. That means that water is drawn directly from the ocean outside the building, flows through the tanks, and then immediately back to onto shore where it enriches the intertidal environment. Water is untreated and unfiltered. This system allows for the display of certain species that rely on microscopic plankton which are almost impossible to artificially provision.
Another benefit of the flow-through system is its direct connection to the sea. New residents are continually colonizing the tanks, making for a highly dynamic set of displays that reflect seasonal changes in the marine environment.
Here is a keyhole limpet (approximately 5 cm across), throwing up its defence against the painted sea star (Orthasterias koehleri): a curtain of slimy flesh, resistant to the star's clinging tube feet.
To me, the Ucluelet Aquarium is not only more exciting than its larger, industrial cousins. It is also more sustainable. This institution also provides a form of economic stimulus to the community that is grounded in science education. As such, it serves as high quality venue for local school groups to learn about, and take pride in the unique features of their environment.
After running a pilot project for the past five years, the Ucluelet Aquarium Society has recently obtained funding for a larger building that will sit permanently on the waterfront. Here is a picture of its current state of construction.
Construction under way for the new Ucluelet Aquarium.