At first I was hesitant because I don’t like to see animals caged, in this case by glass. However the exhibits at Oregon Coast Aquarium are mesmerizing. They held no large animals, even though no enclosure can be big enough or as expansive as the sea. This educational facility promotes environmental awareness, conservation and good stewardship through enjoyment, education and research.
Upon entering the aquarium grounds the environment changed from a bustling Newport to a natural forest. No wonder, as the aquarium gardens feature over one hundred plant species, creating a lush and ever-changing natural environment. Red Alder, Creek Dogwood and towering Big Leaf maple trees cast long reflections in the trickling stream full of fall leaf colors. A small beaver dam with a tranquil saltwater marsh could be seen beyond the trees. The process used to reclaim the land on which the aquarium sits is called “naturescaping,” or landscaping with native plant life. Before the 1990s construction the southern end of the Yaquina Bay had been turned into a dumping ground by local industry.
Welcome to Oregon Coast Aquarium
We entered through the main lobby and after buying tickets our photo was taken. Various options for copies of the photos could be purchased on the way out but we opted not to. There is a café and espresso stand attached to the lobby. Just outside the door and near one of the gift shops were two “Foto Fun” photo booths that we should have taken advantage of. Anyone remember strip photos for $1? I think the price has gone up a bit since I was a kid. Berta bought some gifts for her great grandsons including interactive and coloring books that look like fun. Large sculptures of sea life carved from wood or cast bronze decorated the walkways. Even the door handles were artistic like the one that looks like octopus tentacles that I shared on the Geogypsy Facebook page.
The Sea & Me provides interactive exhibits for children young and old like a submarine sea lab, kid-sized fishing boat complete with rubber bibs, a theater with activities, books and costumes, digging in the sand for agates and shells which I’d already done at the beach so left these behind, plus large tanks full of exotic colored fish. Berta donated $1 to the $2 hurricane force wind experience for these four boys and we watched their smiles increase along with the power of the wind. Note the 78.5mpr.
At the shore
We wandered from building to building working our way from the shore to the sea. I saw Tsunami warning signs all along the Oregon coast recommending to drop, cover and hold during an earthquake followed by walking briskly to high ground after the shaking stops. Undersea earthquakes occur along the Cascadia Subduction Zone running from northern California to British Columbia. A tsunami can deposit a layer of sea sand in its path creating sandy shores where sea life lives with human constructs like pier pilings and tidal pools in the surf zone.
The Coastal Waters “At the Jetty” exhibit was my favorite with Moon jellies and Pacific Sea Nettles providing quite a show. However despite the common name of jellyfish, jellies aren’t fish. They float through life with no brain, no spine, no bones and no heart and are more than 95% water and salts. They swim by contracting the band of muscle fibers encircling the bell and because this gentle pulsing isn’t very strong they are considered plankton drifting with the currents. Some jellies sting with their tentacles to stun plankton and small fishes before eating them but we can also be stung both in the water and on the sand.
Hiding in the rocks
The Giant Pacific Octopus was not to be seen. And although it may look fearsome is quite shy, sleeping by day in a rocky den or crevice to hide from predators. By night, it combs the seafloor seeking crabs, shrimp and other shellfish which it takes back to its den to eat then piles the empty shells outside in what’s called an octopus’s garden. So that’s where that Beetles line comes from.
Next we wandered twisting trails between the rocks into the aviary where the species exhibited are members of the Alcid family commonly found off the Oregon Coast. They spend most of their lives at sea, returning to rookeries along the rocky coast once a year to breed. Veteran divers, Alcids gracefully “fly” underwater and frequently dive to depths of 30-40 feet (9-12 meters). Their diet consists primarily of small fish like herring or smelt. Except for the Black Oystercatchers that do not dive for fish, but chisel limpets, crabs and mussels from tide pool rocks and break them open with their beaks. I was very excited to see Tufted Puffins yet their fall plumage is not so dramatic as during mating season.
A separate exhibit houses a sibling pair of vultures, named Ichabod and Olive who were taken from their nest as hatchlings into a human home. Shortly thereafter, they were turned over to wildlife rehabilitation specialists who were able to provide the care they needed. But, as a result, they imprinted on human beings early and were unable to be released back into the wild.
Mammals of the sea
Harbor Seals and Sea Lions, known collectively as pinnipeds meaning feather- or fin-footed, share the same newly enlarged tank exhibit. Sea Lions are long, sleeker-looking and have large front flippers and a hinged pelvis which helps them to effectively navigate on land. Males have a large round forehead and are much bigger than females at 8 feet (2.4 meters) in length weighing 850 pounds (385 kilograms) while females are 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length and weigh 220 pounds (99.7 kilograms), both live 25-30 years.
Harbor Seals are smaller and more “sausage shaped.” They have comparatively small fins and are not as vocal as the barking Sea Lions. About 6 feet (1.8 meters) in length, weighing 300 pounds (136 kilograms), and live 25-30 years, males and females look very similar. They often swim right up to the barrier for a closer look like this female who hung upside down and just seemed to stare at us. The surrounding rainbow colors must be from the glass/acrylic.
The all-male raft of Sea Otters is the largest population in the state of Oregon as they were hunted to extinction for their unique pelts with the last one being killed just off the Newport Beach in 1907. Protected since 1911, they are making a recovery in California, Alaska and Washington and are listed as Threatened under the Endangered Species Act. They control the population of sea urchins which in turn feed on the giant kelp forests offshore so their extirpation disrupted the ecological balance which allowed the destruction of many of the underwater forests and the habitat they provided for innumerable species. I am saddened by my fellow humankind’s treatment of life on our fragile planet. Seeing these adorable faces makes me question my own species’ right to live here. Although typically very playful they were all asleep after a recent feeding.
Passages of the Deep
We almost missed this exhibit which moves through the depths of the sea. Didn’t see the sign and had to back track after directions from staff in the main lobby. Beginning with the Orford Reef which includes a cluster of submerged haystack rock formations with only the tops visible above water. Beneath the waves, the areas between these rocks form a deep reef of narrow crevasses and swaying forests of bull kelp. This gas-filled bulb is attached to the seafloor by a stipe that may be 100 feet (30 meters) long. The float buoys up the plant, keeping the blades near the surface where there’s plenty of sunlight. During the peak growing season, it can grow at a rate of 14 inches per day and provides food and shelter for a diversity of marine life including fish, invertebrates, and marine mammals.
This two-hour tour into the sea ended at a second gift shop and a lovely walk along the estuary returned us to the main lobby. I may have been hesitant at first but am very impressed with the thought that went into all these exhibits set on only 23 acres (9 ha). It also proved to be a photographic challenge shooting from darks to lights, with reflections and into water. And although I’m not typically a water-baby, I left with a better connection to the sea.
Education is the key to saving our oceans and all the life within. Oregon Coast Aquarium offers a living classroom to over 40,000 students a year through outreach, on site labs, exhibits, the web, sleepovers, dive and snorkel experiences. A perfect location along Yaquina Bay in Newport, Oregon the aquarium guides visitors from mountain to sea. If you can’t visit right away a virtual experience is available on their aquari-cam.
What natural landscape(s) do you connect best with?