{Yep, thats what the man said}

Sea creatures bound for freedom after time at aquarium

Sandra McCulloch, Times Colonist Published: Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Ucluelet Aquarium has taken the concept of "catch and release" to new depths. On Saturday, hundreds of sea creatures will return to the sea after spending a few months ashore entertaining and educating the public.

"Release day has become the iconic event for us," said Bill Morrison of the non-profit Ucluelet Aquarium Society yesterday.

Releasing sea creatures after a few months' captivity "keeps us distinct from other kinds of aquariums," said Morrison.

Veterinary checks of the animals show that most benefit from the steady feeding and pampering received on shore, he said. Morrison jokes that the aquarium has become "an intertidal spa" for oceanic specimens.

The town so loves its aquarium that there are plans to find it a permanent home on the harbour, alongside the native barnacles and starfish. All going well, the aquarium will also soon be open year-round, instead of just seasonally. Both the residents and the businesses would love to see that happen.

"When we started to get unsolicited donations from the local businesses we realized we were the enhancing the tourism infrastructure," Morrison said.

The aquarium began in a temporary shelter in the summers of 2004 and 2005, showcasing fish and sea critters scooped from the sea in the spring. Once the summers ended, the animals were returned to the ocean.

The two-year foreshore permit expired and the aquarium closed down but reappeared this summer, with 15,000 visitors swarming to the temporary structure on the edge of the harbour.

"The whole town is in love with the aquarium," said Marny Saunders, general manager of Ucluelet's Chamber of Commerce.

"The ocean is just so amazing. We're surrounded by it but we don't get a chance to see up close and personal how amazing it really is."

Saunders' 16-year-old son hung around the aquarium so much he was put to work as the youngest employee, she said.

The District of Ucluelet is helping the aquarium secure permits with the provincial and federal governments, said Geoff Lyons, the town's chief administrative officer.

"People are gobsmacked when they look at the type of fish that are there," said Lyons. "Few even know what kind of exotic looking fish are out [in the ocean]."

Starfish and barnacles were released to the ocean yesterday but the crowds are expected to appear on Saturday, when the last of the fish are released from the town's dock. A highlight will be the release of an octopus, which has gained some popularity with locals.

The fish are gathered in the spring by divers, volunteers and staff, said Morrison.

Some come in from fishermen "but an awful lot come in from our army of youngsters who ply the docks and bring us many different specimens," Morrison said.

Over the winter, the aquarium society hopes to build tidal pools and encourage sea creatures to become part of an outdoor exhibit near the future building site.

The building itself is still in the design stage, said Morrison, but work could begin this winter on a platform that will support it.

Even if the aquarium finds the funds to open year-round, it will still continue to release fish back to the sea in an ongoing cycle, he said, "so no animal stays in captivity for more than a few months."

The release begins at 11 a.m. on Saturday and is expected to continue for a couple of hours.

smcculloch@tc.canwest.com

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008