Life Below Water at the Ucluelet Aquarium

The Ucluelet Aquarium is officially back open for the 2021 season, hosting a diversity of exhibits featuring amazing marine organisms including sea pens, Nudibranches, rockfish, sculpins, and even a Giant Pacific Octopus!

Image of Giant Pacific Octopus. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium

But where do they get all of these amazing marine species?

The Ucluelet Aquarium is a collect-and-release aquarium meaning that all of the marine organisms you see in their tanks have been collected in the ecosystems and habitats around the Ucluelet Peninsula. Jordan, the Science Communications and Marine Debris Coordinator at the Ucluelet Aquarium, explains that the aquarium staff collects what the ocean is able to provide. They choose species that are abundant in the area, including Purple Urchins and Surfperch, to minimize their impact on local ecosystems and exhibit the habitats and marine life that call the Ucluelet Peninsula home. They also love to showcase species that are less well-known to the general public, such as Grunt Sculpins and Strawberry Anemones. Showcasing a diversity of species ensures that the Ucluelet Aquarium can demonstrate the numerous marine ecosystems under the waves here in Ucluelet, from kelp forests to sandy beaches to eelgrass meadows. These exhibits demonstrate the abundant biodiversity along our coast and provide opportunities for visitors to learn something new and exciting about our dynamic ocean.

Image of Strawberry Anemones. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium

As you can imagine, Opening Day for the Ucluelet Aquarium takes a lot of prep and planning to comprehensively capture the diverse marine and intertidal ecosystems of the west coast. Jordan says the collection process and the curation of the exhibits take well over a month. The aquarium staff carefully collects all of the animals by snorkel, wade, or seine from designated and planned collection sites that host an abundance of species. Some of the animals that live in deep water, such as Rockfish and Sea Pens, are collected by a local, professional collection company by scuba. The Ucluelet Aquarium also has to collect all of the elements of each habitat they are exhibiting, requiring the collection of sand, rocks, and other habitat components to build healthy habitat for the incoming animals.

Image of Tiger Rockfish. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium

The Ucluelet Aquarium’s collect-and-release system helps reduce the aquarium’s impact on the marine environment and encourages reciprocal and respectful relationships with the ocean. The marine animals spend three to nine months in the Ucluelet Aquarium exhibits before they are released back into their original collection site. This means that each year, the Ucluelet Aquarium’s exhibits are new animals, enabling visitors to learn something different each season.

What makes the Ucluelet Aquarium’s collect-and-release model possible is their “flow-through” system within the aquarium, which is composed of a consistent supply of fresh ocean water running through the aquarium at all times via pipes to bring oxygen, nutrients, plankton, and all of the essential components for ocean life to the marine organisms housed in the aquarium. The Ucluelet Aquarium is essentially an extension of the ocean ecosystem right outside! While this system restricts the Ucluelet Aquarium to only host local species to prevent the introduction of non-native organisms to the ocean ecosystem that the aquarium is connected to, Jordan explains that this isn’t really a disadvantage. Being able to host only local species ensures that visitors are learning about the vast amount of life that calls the Ucluelet Peninsula home.

Image of Ucluelet Aquarium and pipes in the flow-through system connecting the building to the ocean. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium

Many visitors are excited to learn that the beautiful, colourful life showcased in the aquarium exists in abundance just below the low tide line along the coast of Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds. Ucluelet Aquarium staff who have had the opportunity to participate in the collection process can share these amazing experiences, encouraging visitors to consider the importance of coastal and marine wildlife and habitats and their role in protecting them.

Image of Ucluelet Aquarium staff at a collection site preparing for 2021 season. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium 

Surprisingly, the exhibit that is the staff favourite is not an exhibit that has been collected in the neighbouring marine ecosystems. The plankton tank, a constant tank that has been at the aquarium for 9 years, has grown from the plankton and microorganisms that have been introduced into the tank solely through the pipes in the flow-through system. Jordan says, it is one of the most unassuming exhibits in the aquarium, but once visitors learn the story behind it and the amazing life cycles the organisms in the tank have gone through, they can’t help but be enraptured by it. Planktonic larvae have grown into a thriving ecosystem, with species including scallops, sponges, sea cucumbers, and anemones. Jordan says there are even multiple sea stars that have started as microscopic larvae and grown into adults. Ucluelet Aquarium staff love to see how the exhibit changes each season and what life will inhabit the tank year to year.

Image of Plankton Tank. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium

The Ucluelet Aquarium offers a glimpse into the amazing ecosystems and the species that inhabit them on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Visit the Ucluelet Aquarium on Wednesdays to Mondays, 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day throughout the 2021 season, with COVID-19 protocols in place, to have your chance to experience these amazing ecosystems. To learn more about the Ucluelet Aquarium’s admission, hours, and this season’s exhibits, please visit or the Ucluelet Aquarium Facebook and Instagram pages.

Image of tank of Sea Pens. Photo Credit: Ucluelet Aquarium