Getting up close with the fish at Ucluelet Aquarium

Blaine Kyllo

A small fishing village on the west coast of Vancouver Island may be an unlikely place for a public aquarium, but the Ucluelet Aquarium distinguishes itself by taking sustainability seriously.

Housed in a couple of trailers perched above the beach along the Ucluelet Main Street waterfront, the aquarium was overflowing with excited children and bemused parents when I visited it last summer.

It's a vibrant, bustling place, even on a grey and rainy day in the middle of August. Children dash through the gaps between the tanks, many of which are open. Staff encourage visitors to get hands on with the specimens, holding out sea stars for squealing children to touch.

Last summer, Caylan Piper was one of those laughing with the children while teaching them about the mystery and magic of the marine life. Originally from Salt Spring Island, the University of Victoria biology graduate was spending the summer living in Ucluelet and working at the aquarium. "For us," she told me during a phone call, "it's about fostering respect for the ocean and opening our eyes to what's out there."

Open system

Curator David Hurwitz explained that the aquarium is an open system, pulling unfiltered water out of the ocean, flowing it through the tanks in the aquarium, and then back where it came from.

"We have a green ethic," he said, "but we're really trying to walk the talk of sustainability."

The drive to sustainability goes beyond the infrastructure. Hurwitz said that his facility is the only aquarium in Canada – perhaps in the world – that releases its exhibits. "In fact," he said, "we release more animals than we collect because of the spawning that happens in the aquarium."

At the end of the season – this year the Ucluelet Aquarium will stay open through the end of October – they have a "release party". "We release everything," Hurwitz explained. "The last thing I release is the sand. I stand there and watch the waves wash it back into the ocean."

Amazing animals

The specimens for the exhibits are all collected within a couple of kilometres of the facility. No endangered species are collected, and when they're in the aquarium, they live in their natural environment, and eat what they'd normally eat while in the wild.

The animals are found by Hurwitz and board member Philip Bruecker, who have permits from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to collect for aquariums.

Occasionally, commercial fisherman will come in with animals that they have pulled in with their catch. Hurwitz said that this means he collects things – especially from some of the deep water traps – that even researchers can't get access to. "We get stuff you might not see in another aquarium," he said.

Caylan said that the Pacific Northwest has one of the highest amounts of biomass in all the oceans. The diver, who is now volunteering with young children in Peru, said the high nutrient levels in the waters in the B.C. coast are murky, and not ideal for snorkelling, but are filled with "amazing animals".

Like the octopus I saw last summer, which took up nearly an entire tank, and I suspected would never leave unless it wanted to.

Hurwitz explained that octopuses grow fast, gaining one percent of their body mass every day. "They are the smartest of all the invertebrates," he said, adding that the creatures can remember individual faces for up to six months.

At last fall's release party, the octopus opted to return to the ocean after all. Hurwitz said that he explained to the assembled children that the octopus would probably just zip away once it was out of the tank, but instead it crawled up and along the beach, with its mantle out of the water, as if it was saying goodbye to each and every person.

Growth plans

Just like that octopus, the Ucluelet Aquarium is growing. During the recent winter, four people were hired to construct an intertidal garden in front of the aquarium. The two tide pools are fed by outflowing ocean water from the tanks, and as such will be colonized in part by the spawning activity from the aquarium itself.

And there's a plan for a permanent building that will cantilever out over the ocean right along the Ucluelet waterfront.

Hurwitz said that the building will have a heat pump that is driven by the hydraulic energy of the water leaving the aquarium, metal coils in one of the large tanks will allow for a heat exchange with the building and it will be constructed with a green roof with native plants and grasses.

And rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on new tanks, Hurwitz bought used tanks from the garbage piles of other aquariums, and paid for staff members to train in how to refinish the acrylic tanks. "They look brand new," he said.

The hope is to have the permanent facility ready by the fall of 2011 or the spring of 2012. But until then, there are exhibits to create, and visitors to teach.

"Knowledge is empowering," said Hurwitz. "The more you know about the animals, the greater your respect for them."

On exhibit right now are some Tanner crabs, collected from deep water, thread fin sculpins, a five-foot wolf eel, and a display of worms, anemones, and tunicates which have made homes on a piece of rope that Hurwitz left hanging off the dock during the winter.

And a new octopus. It's waiting for you to stop by and introduce yourself.

The Ucluelet Aquarium is on the Main Street Waterfront Promenade in Ucluelet, B.C., and is open between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day until the end of October 2010.