SCUBA divers are lucky. They have the unique opportunity to breathe beneath the surface and see the ocean and its inhabitants at eye level.
Unfortunately, much of the world’s human population is surface-bound as they can’t swim or have health limitations, some kind of phobia or just can’t prioritize the costs.
As much as diving is the ultimate immersive experience, aquariums have long been the most accessible way to experience the ocean without getting wet. But aquariums are changing. They are no longer just for big cities with big animals.
Love at first glance
My first memory of marine life was when I went face-to-face with a sea star, in as much as it is possible to determine if a sea star even has a face. In a small rustic building on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, the Ucluelet Mini Aquarium had 30 aquarium exhibits displaying only local fish and invertebrates collected from waters near by.
Interpreters were knowledgeable and close at hand, sharing stories and facilitating practical learning at several of the touch tanks containing sand dollars, anemones and sea cucumbers.
Much like the building, their animal collection was modest. Displaying nothing larger then an octopus, the exhibits put the spotlight on tiny pipefish, sea slugs, umbrella crabs and jellies. Under the video microscope one could watch a squid egg hatch or sea urchin pincers emerge.
The animals were inspected by a veterinarian at the end of the season and released back to the waters from which they were collected. Today, hundreds of aquarium supporters come out each year to help, bringing buckets and taking a small fish or hermit crab to set free.
The Ucluelet Mini Aquarium was Canada’s first catch-and-release public aquarium and has become a new model for the aquarium paradigm, paving the way for coastal communities around the world to do the same.
Catch-and-release public aquariums were designed to address the key concerns of traditional facilities while maintaining the strengths aquariums have to deliver impactful marine education.
Dr. Earle’s response to the Center for Humans & Nature question, “How can zoos and aquariums foster cultures of care and conservation?” explores both the intrinsic value of traditional institutions as well as the sea change they are facing.
These larger institutions play a vital role in marine conservation and education, often leading marine conservation initiatives, research and rescue efforts. They have the capacity to engage large audiences, employ specialized staff and become training grounds for future marine biologists. These considerable resources often require major population centers to sustain them.
The mini aquarium model enables small to mid-sized coastal communities to highlight unique marine life, create new science-based jobs locally, engage volunteers, boost tourism, and give everyone an opportunity to learn about life beneath the sea.
In 2012, the Ucluelet Mini Aquarium dropped the “mini” from its name, tripled its exhibit space and became financially self-sustaining. In the process, two more mini aquariums were born under the leadership of the original founder.
Five hours away, the original building was picked up and moved to Campbell River, BC where it is now the Discovery Passage Aquarium.
Five time zones away, on the east coast of Canada, the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium in Newfoundland will celebrate its fourth season this spring.
Now, five more mini aquariums are underway in Canada and more are planned internationally. Within this family of aquariums, all organizations have maintained the founding principles of locally-sourced exhibits and a catch-and-release collection philosophy.
Stretching from coast to coast to coast, this model is catching on. To meet the demand the founders of the first three mini aquariums have come together to form a small business, helping communities around the world who are interested in exploring their sea sides.
Stewards on every edge
If every continental edge were better understood and cared for by those who live there, our oceans would be better appreciated and more deeply enjoyed. Whether looking through a SCUBA mask or aquarium glass, experiencing the ocean up close is what will change perspectives and our approach to marine conservation.
Melanie Knight is the CEO and Co-Founder of Ocean to Eye Level, a Canadian consulting firm that supports coastal communities starting small-scale, catch-and-release aquariums around the world. She is also founder of the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium just outside of St. John’s Newfoundland. The founders of the Ucluelet Aquarium and Discovery Passage Aquarium are partners in this firm bringing their collective expertise in aquarium infrastructure, marine education, non-profit governance, fundraising and digital storytelling to help clients go from back-of-napkin dreaming to opening day. See Melanie’s TEDx talk about mini aquariums here.
Ocean to Eye Level Consulting is a proud affiliate member of Mission Blue, an initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance.