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Quadra's own Shayla Sopracolle-Tate in interpretive action at the aquarium
General · 2nd September 2013
Deb Cowper
Have you been to the Discovery Passage Aquarium in Campbell River yet this year? Sailfin sculpins, strawberry anemones, copper rockfish, bright red blood stars, juvenile Chinook salmon, swimming scallops and many more marine critters have attracted well over 10,000 visitors since it opened in early June!

The aquarium has strong local connections, and idea actually originated on Quadra Island. When resident marine biologists, Mark and Iris Wunsch, had the opportunity to acquire the decommissioned Ucluelet Aquarium building and its tanks they did not hesitate for long:
“We had played with the idea of a local aquarium since we moved to Quadra in 2009,” Mark says. “People are drawn to aquariums because they disclose a world that is hidden to them. It offers tremendous opportunities for education.” The Wunsch couple had worked with public aquariums and marine science stations before and had experienced their potential for engaging people.
“Of course you can’t establish a project of this size on your own”, says Iris Wunsch. “We phoned our friends and colleagues who we knew would have passion for this kind of project and - we got only positive responses! Knowing Campbell River and our islands, we were confident that we could raise the funds and engage more volunteers to make it happen.”

As a first step, the Discovery Passage SeaLife Society (DPSS) was established to run the aquarium, with the aim of growing it into a hub for marine education and to boast local marine and coastal knowledge. On board from the first minute were more Quadrites with a wide array of expertise: marine consultant Deb Cowper, writer and educator Jolie Shea, biologist Elan Downey, as well as Phoenix teachers Dionne Lapointe-Bakota and Lou Bakota. Businessman Lorrie Bewza and North Island College instructor Sandra Milligan completed the team from the Campbell River side. The volunteer team worked for a year with the authorities to get all necessary permits and finances together and finally the building in place.

“The list of supporters grew with every step,” says Sandra Milligan. “The community has been amazing. City staff had been very helpful from the start, funding came in from the Campbell River Rotary clubs, City Council, various foundations, BC Hydro and numerous other businesses as well as private people in cash and kind. Seymour Pacific even offered to put the building together with their crew and paid for new materials, which was a huge help.”

Regional District Area Director for the islands and mainland inlets, Jim Abram, who provided a grant through the Strathcona Regional District for the venture from his area funds, commented on the value of the project with a broad perspective:

“Initiatives like the aquarium are important for the whole North Island region as it offers many benefits to all of the island’s communities. It draws people, educates them and provides valuable jobs! The aquarium really emphasizes the wealth that we have here in our coastal waters and makes it accessible for locals and tourists alike - up close and personal! This endeavour makes it so much more obvious why we need to plan for and protect our marine resources in this area and only allow appropriate development that will not endanger the health of our marine ecosystem. It cannot be replaced!”

The large number of visitors is one testament to the aquarium’s success, and this has already exceeded original predications. “The popularity of the aquarium has been incredible, and our visitors have been as varied as the critters on show,” says Aquarium Manager, Deb Cowper: “We have had folk visit from all over the world, but it is always fabulous to welcome the locals. Quadra Children’s Centre was first through the door when we opened in June, closely followed by the island’s Elementary School classes. Many groups have visited several times, enjoying the displays and interactive experience that we have to offer.”

“It is wonderful to have such a great resource like the aquarium within walking distance”, says Dee McPhee from the Quadra Children’s Centre. “It has been a wonderful hands-on experience for our kids. The children get very engaged with the touch tanks and were fascinated and tickled by the swimming scallops! We don’t get to see most of the aquarium’s ocean life when we go on a field trip to the beach.”
There is also interest from other local communities to work together with DPSS and the aquarium in furthering their goals.

Sabina Leader-Mense, marine biologist and educator from Cortes Island is excited about potential collaborations between the aquarium and Friends of Cortes Island (FOCI):

“What I see emerging here is a wonderful regional effort on the part of the Discovery Islands to participate in and support the work of the Discovery Passage SeaLife Society/ Aquarium, and come the fall I look forward to discussing FOCI's marine stewardship program with the SeaLife Society with a view to exchanging ideas, resources and data.”

“This is exactly what the Discovery Passage SeaLife Society has been set up for: to build community and collaboration for more awareness and knowledge about our marine environment, “ concludes Mark Wunsch. “The winter will allow us to reflect on this year’s experiences and plan outreach activities with schools and interest groups for the next year. We certainly have a number of very exciting new exhibits and features coming up -so watch out for the news!”

If you want to know more about the Discovery Passage SeaLife Society and the Aquarium, become a volunteer, or offer your financial support, you can also go to or follow their Facebook site.

For those of you have not seen the aquarium yet, make sure you get there before it closes for this year’s season. The Aquarium is open every day from 10-5 until September 29, after which all of the critters will be released back into the ocean. The aquarium will reopen in May next year.