Sunshine Coast

Under the Sea

Gibsons’ innovative “collect-and-release” aquarium borrows creatures from the ocean floor and brings them to eye level.

by Jessica Natale Woollard

The centre's touch-tanks provide visitors with a hands-on experience. Photo by Dolf Vermeulen.

On a warm, sunny day last October, a crowd of about 40 people of all ages lined the wooden dock at Armours Beach in Gibsons on the Sunshine Coast, hands clasping buckets of every colour. Inside each bucket were marine creatures — orange sea stars, purple sea cucumbers, red crabs — that had been on display at the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre for the previous eight months. That afternoon, with the help of aquarium supporters and staff, the animals were being returned to their home in the Salish Sea.

The Release Day was the first of its kind for the centre since opening in the fall of 2017 and becoming the first public aquarium on the Sunshine Coast.

Anenome from the Salish Sea. Photo by Dolf Vermeulen.

“It was a wonderful, multi-generational event, with young kids to grandparents,” remembers Colin Stansfield, executive director of the Gibsons Community Building Society, the not-for-profit organization that operates the Gibsons Public Market and the Nicholas Sonntag Centre. “The Release Day allowed us to encourage tangible engagement with our marine ecosystems and that sort of personal connection that brings the ocean to eye level and fosters greater compassion and empathy for the animals who live in the ecosystems.”

The centre was named after the late Nicholas Sonntag, a local engineer who devoted his life to preserving Earth’s resources. He envisioned opening a public market with a marine education component on the abandoned former site of the Gibsons Yacht Club. The aquarium that bears his name follows a collect-and-release model, one used by only a small number of other aquariums in Canada.

“Ideally, we’ll inspire people to think about the types of behaviours and actions they can take to support marine and environmental sustainability.”— Colin Stansfield

“What appeals to us about the model is that it’s an ethical approach to educating the public about the diversity of the marine ecosystems on which we depend,” Stansfield says. “We believe it’s important for tourists and locals alike to learn about the marine wildlife in the region because with greater awareness comes greater understanding of how we are all connected to the sea and it to us. Ideally, we’ll inspire people to think about the types of behaviours and actions they can take to support marine and environmental sustainability.”

Colin Stansfield stands among the exhibits at the Nicholas Sonntag Marine Education Centre. Photo by Dolf Vermeulen.

Since opening, the centre has welcomed more than 12,000 people to its 30 exhibits, which collectively feature 32,000 gallons of water and 400 specimens representing 70 species. Visitors can feel the spines of a prickly sea urchin, marvel at copper rockfish and prehistoric glass sponges, smell a watermelon-scented hooded nudibranch, and pet the rough edges of a seastar. The centre’s staff includes registered professional biologists and certified scientific divers who collect new creatures a few times a year and, at the same time, release others. The animals are returned to Howe Sound in the Salish Sea where they were found, so they “can fulfill their biological destiny,” Stansfield says.

Gibsons, made famous in the quirky 1970s Canadian TV series The Beachcombers, is accessible by ferry. Passengers can travel to the Langdale terminal via BC Ferries from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver, a 40-minute crossing during which the ferry traverses the very same marine environment the Nicholas Sonntag Centre brings to the surface with its educational exhibits. BC Ferries is supporting the centre as its presenting sponsor for the first three years of operations through the SeaForward program — a BC Ferries initiative that aims to protect and preserve the local environment in a variety of ways.

“The partnership is a wonderful synergy for us — we’re transporting people over to Gibsons and once there, they’ll learn about the wonderful habitat they saw during their travels,” says Mika Desloges, corporate social responsibility manager at BC Ferries.

“The Nicholas Sonntag Centre does an excellent job of providing accessible education on the marine environment, which is very important for us. Education is a fundamental component of motivating people to passionately participate in the preservation of our beautiful coastal communities,” says Desloges.

Stansfield agrees. The centre’s ultimate goal is for visitors to be moved by the experience of interacting with the sea creatures and take action to care for marine ecosystems.

To that end, the collect-and-release model is key to success.

“We bring the mystery up from the deep,” Stansfield says. “We see the same excitement in a three-year-old visitor as we do in an 83-year-old. The way that learning then acts as a vehicle for connecting is inspiring.”

Release Day at Armours Beach in Gibsons. Photo by Colin Stansfield.