Category: Landmark Place
GPS Coordinates: 44.6170542, -124.0465051
The Oregon Coast Aquarium is one of the best known natural history attractions in the state, providing over 400,000 people a year with the chance to see and learn about Oregon’s native marine and coastal species and ecosystems. Located in Newport, the facility is part of a larger marine education and research hub which includes the Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Fleet Headquarters and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Aquarium administers the Oceanscape Network as part of its educational mission.
Carrie Lewis, the Aquarium’s President and CEO, met with the Network in Spring 2015 to share the history — and a few of the secrets — behind the Aquarium.
“The mission of the Oregon Coast Aquarium is showcasing our incredible marine animals here in an environment that promotes education and conservation,” Carrie told the Network.
And the Aquarium is uniquely geared to do just this, with over 250 individual animal species calling the facility home. Most of these species reside in realistic enclosures which replicate their natural habitats along the coast, including tide pools, estuaries, kelp forests and the open sea. Considered one of the top ten aquariums in the country, part of the organization’s success lies in its careful planning and design which started back in 1992.
“We’re in one of the most beautiful spots on the Yaquina Bay,” Carrie said, “but this area actually had pretty humble beginnings.”
The property now occupied by the Aquarium housed a lumber mill through much of the twentieth century. Native vegetation was cleared away to make room for saw mills, storage buildings and roads. When the lumber industry went into decline in the 1970s and 80s, the mill was abandoned and the area was often used for illegal dumping. Around this same time, the Newport City Council began to look for other ways to replace the lost lumber revenue and the establishment of an aquarium was one of many ideas. The old lumber mill site, which sat adjacent to the bay and its sprawling estuary, was the ideal location but it would take a lot of work to reclaim the land.
“When the Aquarium was first being planned, we brought in some very talented architects and landscape architects from Portland Carrie recalled. “Their concept was to recreate the coastal forest environment which existed on this site [prior to the lumber mill.]”
The technique is called “naturescaping” and it entailed the large-scale modification of landforms, drainage areas and water features, along with the reintroduction of native plants. Today, gardens and natural areas constitute almost half of the Aquarium’s footprint and contain dozens of native species. The naturescaping process was so successful that in 2007 the National Wildlife Federation certified the Aquarium grounds as a wildlife habitat.
“It’s not unusual for our guests to spot many animals which live on the property but aren’t actually part of our exhibits,” said Carrie. “This is especially true for birds and small mammals.”
Visitors can further expand their wildlife viewing by taking a walk along the Aquarium’s nature trail which has several interpretive overlooks along the edge of the Yaquina Bay estuary. Nearby, the old “log pond” once used by the former lumber mill has been allowed to regress to its natural state and now provides habitat for waterfowl and fish.
For most Aquarium visitors, however, the highlight of any visit is the various animal enclosures and exhibits. Three permanent galleries, a temporary exhibit area, two bird aviaries, a wave crash and an elaborate network of outdoor rocky pools provide homes to dozens of native marine species. Harbor seals, California sea lions and Northern and Southern sea otters cavort in large pools with viewing areas that invites visitors to see them both above and below the water.
Further down the trail, guests can explore the dark and mysterious Passages of the Deep, a series of underwater tunnels which represent three major Oregon marine ecosystems. This building once housed Keiko, the orca made famous by the Free Willy movies who resided at the Aquarium for three years before being transitioned first to bay pens and then to the open waters of his native Iceland [See That Time When An Orca Lived Here for more information.] Following Keiko’s departure, his large exhibit was redesigned to display kelp forests, sand flats and the open ocean. Colorful rockfish, massive sturgeon and a variety of sharks and rays now called these underwater habitats home.
As entertaining as all this sounds, Carrie notes every part of the Oregon Coast Aquarium is geared toward educating the public and encouraging a sense of stewardship for coastal and ocean ecosystems.
Tens of thousands of school-aged children benefit from the Aquarium’s onsite programs and community outreach. Educators travel throughout Oregon, Washington and northern California to bring programs to communities which may be hundreds of miles from the coast. Curriculum choices can vary widely based on the age of the students, but all strive to impart important natural history information while encouraging a sense of stewardship for natural places. On the grounds themselves, dozens of highly trained volunteers provide educational interpretation to guests of all ages.
“We’re a small organization but we do some big things when it comes to education and conservation,” Carrie said. “My goal for each visitor who comes through our doors is to take away something that will do something better for the environment.”