Creatures of the Sunshine Coast

Discover the wonders of the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre

by John Lee

Rockfish at the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre. Photo courtesy Dolf Vermeulen Creative. 

It’s 2 p.m. at the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre in Gibsons, and a gaggle of wide-eyed children are peering reverentially into glowing cylindrical tanks and gently burbling pools. At the Sunshine Coast’s first-ever public aquarium, the kids are trying to find as many distinctive marine critters as they can.

With prickly urchins, scuttling little crabs and rockfish to see, there are dozens of species to spot in the 30 habitat enclosures. All are from the nearby waters of Howe Sound or Sechelt Inlet, and each is here temporarily under a “collect and release” program common to only a handful of aquariums in Canada.

Crab burrowing in the sand, allowing it to remain stable in order to feed. Photo courtesy Dolf Vermeulen Creative.

“It gives these creatures a chance to fulfill their biological destiny once they leave us,” explains Colin Stansfield, executive director of the Gibsons Community Building Society, which operates the Centre and the Gibsons Public Market building it resides in. “But it also gives us a chance to change our exhibits and showcase different varieties of marine life.”

Officially opened in April 2018 and gearing up for its first summer season, the Centre — named after a committed local advocate for the facility who died suddenly in 2015 — aims to educate visitors about the health and sustainability of BC’s ocean ecosystems. The eye-popping variety of regional sea life on display underlines the message, while also surprising most visitors.

Painted anemone dances in the water. Photo courtesy Dolf Vermeulen Creative.

Many can’t believe the Centre’s more exotic-looking creatures live in BC, says Stansfield, adding that painted anemones, decorator crabs and nudibranchs (a colourful soft-bodied mollusk) often catch the eye. But it’s the large, alien-looking sea cucumbers that are “the stars of the show” for many visitors, he says.

It’s not only about ogling mysterious creatures in an intimate setting, though. The Centre also offers interpretive tours and pop-up activities, plus summer day camps for marine biologists of the future. They’re also creating a citizen science-based diving program to monitor local ocean health, as well as a series of environmental education talks for the fall.

It’s this feverish grassroots commitment that attracted BC Ferries’ SeaForward initiative to become the platinum Centre sponsor.

K-12 Programming engages students. Photo courtesy Dolf Vermeulen Creative.

“They have a wonderful program for K-12 students and we really wanted to help them develop this,” says Joanna Daley, manager of SeaForward, adding that BC Ferries is also sponsoring upcoming family days and collect-and-release days at the Centre.

It aligns perfectly with B.C. Ferries values, she adds, noting that SeaForward’s other projects include a Parks Canada partnership that brings naturalists onboard to chat with ferry passengers and a huge community mural project at Langdale Terminal, painted by locals and an artist who is also a BC Ferries employee.

But working with the Centre may be SeaForward’s most important educational push for ocean sustainability in BC. “It’s such a beautifully designed facility, and the local community is at the heart of everything they do — which is exactly the kind of project SeaForward aims to support,” says Daley.

It’s also a project with a deep, long-term purpose, adds Stansfield. “We’re promoting awareness of ocean biodiversity, but we’re also trying to foster a love and respect for this precious resource and its residents. Our goal is to inspire people to make positive changes that will protect the ocean, these creatures and, in turn, ourselves.”