As a small collect-and-release aquarium facility, displaying a selection of animals in an ethical and sustainable manner that accurately represents the endless splendour of Pacific Northwest marine life is no simple feat. In an average year, we bring in upwards of 150 to 175 species of marine life from the waters surrounding the Discovery Passage Aquarium. Caring for these animals requires the orchestration of a precise symphony of sophisticated water supply systems, management of unique animal diets, and rigorous animal husbandry protocols. As the ocean itself continues to change, we have to revitalize and innovate aquarium systems and practices every season.

We take full advantage of our proximity to the ecosystem we share with our guests—operating with what aquarists call a ‘flow-through’ system, where raw seawater is continuously pumped directly from the ocean into our exhibits. While this has many benefits, including the supply of fresh plankton to filter-feeding residents, it comes with many unanticipated challenges. These challenges are specific to the oceanography of our region, forcing us to create solutions to novel issues that our colleagues at aquariums in neighbouring communities do not encounter.

During the catastrophic heat wave of June 2021, we were forced to perform an emergency release of our giant pacific octopus, as temperatures in the Discovery Passage had reached dangerous highs of 18.9°C. Immediately following this event, we began pursuing solutions to the threat of future high sea-surface temperatures. With the generous donation of equipment and the support of volunteers, we engineered a hybrid semi-recirculating system that supplied water fresh from the sea, equipped with the capacity to chill the exhibit when necessary.

Upon the onset of high temperatures, the water supply from the sea was restricted or shut off, allowing the system to continue operating in isolation until the heat wave ended. This allowed us to ‘skip’ these marine heat waves and maintain the health and happiness of our octopus.

While many of our strides in innovation fall under the umbrella of ‘aquarium engineering,’ many take the form of novel methods of maintaining the health of wild marine creatures in a captive setting. Among the most spectacular are the nudibranchs; a special variety of sea slug known worldwide for their bizarre shapes and vibrant colours. While very common in BC waters, they are a rare sight in BC aquariums as their diets are often difficult to replicate. We have made thorough investigations into the specific diets of each species we feature, and go to often-humorous lengths to ensure a steady supply of feed. On any given day, you may notice our staff bent over the side of the docks at Fisherman’s Wharf picking moss-like animals known as bryozoans for our clown nudibranchs, or suiting up in wetsuits to jump in the sea in search of red soft coral for our orange-peel nudibranchs and sulphur sponges for our sea lemons.

There are local fish that are such picky eaters and require so much food that they need an entire aquarium exhibit to themselves. These fish, including the bay pipefish and silver-spotted sculpin, only feed on plankton caught fresh from the harbour. We constructed sophisticated plankton traps inspired by researchers for the sole purpose of feeding these creatures.

The next time you visit us at the aquarium, don’t be afraid to ask an aquarist about the many nuances of caring for our precious aquarium residents. Often, the methodologies of bringing these creatures from the ocean to eye level are as interesting as the animals themselves.