WHERE: 9811 Seaport Pl. Sidney, B.C.

by Shayna Kuffert

As the sun glistens off the rolling waves and an ocean breeze carries a salty chill, the glass walls of the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea reflect its picturesque waterfront surroundings. Inside, visitors are invited to explore the depths of the Salish Sea with interactive exhibits and aquariums housing resident species.

Each year, approximately 70,000 people pass through the Shaw Centre to learn about the ecologically diverse bioregion surrounding Vancouver Island. The centre acts as a public aquarium and learning hub, connecting visitors to the region’s unique wildlife, land, water, and people.

Photos: Provided by the Shaw Centre

The Salish Sea is made up of a myriad of habitats—wetlands, intertidal and deep-water zones, rocky and glass-sponge reefs—that support a huge variety of plant and animal life, including hundreds of mammal, bird, and marine plant species. Deputy director and chief aquarist Paula Romagosa has been with the interactive educational facility since its construction began in 2008.

“We have quite a variety of animals that showcase the diversity that we have in our local waters,” says Romagosa. All of the animals housed in the aquarium are native to the area and come from in front of the centre or the marina next door. While the centre focuses on species iconic to the area, such as Pacific octopus and salmon, it also showcases lesser-known West Coast species like grunt sculpins.

Many of the animals are kept at the centre for a brief time. The resident octopus, for example, only stays for about six months. “They are extremely smart creatures and grow quickly, so when they come in they’re about 10 to 12 pounds and when they leave they are about 40 pounds,” says Romagosa.

The aquarium was designed to fit into a pre-existing space, so the overall layout was carefully crafted to tell the story of the coastal region. A lot of the larger exhibits were designed to house schooling fish. Salmon, especially chinook, “are the main source of food for the resident orca whales, and they play a huge role in the biodiversity of the area,” says Romagosa, “so it was important to highlight their importance within the exhibit.”

“We try to showcase as many local bio-stories as we can—the ones that will impact humans as well as the environment and the connection between the two of them,” says Romagosa. The main goal is to build “the connection between awareness of the environment and the people to enable sustainability and preservation of the unique bioregion that is the Salish Sea.”

The centre is an amalgamation of two former attractions, the Marine Ecology Centre and the Sidney Marine Mammal Museum, both of which were rapidly outgrowing their facilities. In 2008, construction began on the Shaw Centre, filling the empty space in the Sidney Pier building. The centre opened to visitors on June 20, 2009.

Recently, the former gift shop was renovated into a marine mammal exhibit. “We wanted to be able to display the animals that are too large to house in the aquarium, so we have skeletons of sea lions, dolphins, and a humpback whale skull,” says Romagosa.

“We are displaying information on humpback whales and their gradual repopulation to the West Coast following the whaling era,” she continues. “This shows that being more conscious about the area and our actions means the more whales we see coming back.”

As the Shaw Centre builds the connection between the Salish Sea and its human residents and visitors, we can hope for more good news about the preservation and future of this unique bioregion.

Did you like this article? Please subscribe.