An Aquarium Photo Safari

A love of aquariums came upon me suddenly around the age of nine or ten. Not those little ten-gallon things you keep a few goldfish in — I had one, but used it for a home for my mouse, Rascal. My sister kept a few guppies in a goldfish bowl (and held a funeral whenever one died), but I really couldn’t see the point of keeping drab fish you needed a magnifying glass to see.

My epiphany of the possibilities of aquariums came when I was with a group of kids that was taken to a Polynesian restaurant, a very exotic outing in the mid-1960s Eastern US. I don’t even remember the food (other than the deep-fried shrimp, also a new experience) — what I remember is the wall of aquariums: floor to ceiling, filled with big, colourful fish. Strange shapes and graceful, frilly fins distracted me from the meal (a feat in itself). When I got home I lobbied for a similar wall in my bedroom. For some reason this request was not granted. I cannot imagine why.

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Since then, any visit to a friend who kept fish or a Chinese restaurant with the obligatory tank has been an opportunity for me to ignore conversation and food in a dreamy trance state, following the inhabitants around their small, watery world. I’ve never had an aquarium of my own, though. This may be what led me to start making mermaid comics

After I had embarked on my first project illustrating local marine life,  imagine my delight when I discovered there are whole buildings devoted to showing us the underwater world of the coast! And new ones are cropping up all the time. One of the two I visit most frequently is the Ucluelet Aquarium — since I’m out on the west coast of the island almost every summer, I’ve made a point to stop in ever since they were a seasonal attraction in a little floating building at the dock.

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The architecture is impressive, and reflects the personality of the coast. This photo is taken from the comfortable lounge area at the back, where there are lots of books to look at while resting tired feet, and displays of bones and shells (some of which you can touch!) The waist-high blue wall encloses a huge tank with lots and lots of rockfish, and spills into a large touch pool, where you can sit on the side and actually “pet” the sea creatures (gently, of course).

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There are useful signs on the tanks for help in identifying the inhabitants. The tanks are sponsored by local businesses and individuals — one of my faves was sponsored by the campground where we always stay!

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The staff is very knowledgable, and the Aquarium is committed to education. The installation above contained plastic debris found around the area, packed together in discarded fishing nets (more dangerous debris) to form a powerful artistic statement about one of the biggest threats to the oceans: plastic pollution.

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The large touch pool I mentioned above mimics a sizable tidepool of the rocky shore. Like a tidepool, you have to look closely to see what’s going on in it!

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Nearby are large, shallow touch tanks raised up to a good height for kids (or short people like me!) to peer into. They each feature a different set of species — the stars in this one are literally (or should that be littorally?) sea stars — bat stars, to be exact. What I really liked about this tank was that the seaweed that had been chosen for it was colour-coordinated with the bat stars! All of the tanks show evidence of someone with a designer’s eye constructing the habitats; I didn’t ask about that, but I will next time.

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Next to the bat stars was a tank with Leather Stars. As I was aiming my iPhone at them (I found it was getting better pictures with the light available than my fancy-schmancy camera was in my inept hands) a woman remarked that she liked the way these felt lots better than the bat stars! And I could see why — the surface of these stars is soft and fuzzy, unlike the tough skin of the bat stars. And you can’t beat that pattern, worthy of any tree-topping ornament! I do want to make a painting of this one.

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While we’re on the subject of starfish, here is an Ocher Star (the purple kind) investigating a huge mussel, possibly with an eye towards dinner. I think it may have bitten off more than it can, er, suck, though. To the right is a Cockle shell with its foot extended, evidently planning to make a run for it (they can move around quite handily using that foot, and even hop — and they are very wary of sea stars, picking up their scent as a warning).


Later I went back, and the Cockle had moved on a bit. These adventures happen in slow motion to us, but it’s no less exciting for the participants.

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So much to look at in every tiny corner! A Plumose Anemone is retracted around its latest meal (or maybe just trying to avoid small fingers), looking like a pile of mashed potatoes; Pink Coralline Algae spreads its stiff, feathery branches fetchingly, and a Lined Chiton (that armoured looking individual at the top left) perches on a rock covered in Encrusting Coralline Algae.

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Here’s another example of the Coralline Algae — there are many kinds along our coast. They incorporate calcium carbonate into their segments, while retaining flexibility through non-carnonated joints. Sometimes you can find bleached white sections washed up on the beach.


A favourite of mine is the hermit crab, of which we have so many species around here. I usually don’t even try to tell them apart, but I’m going to take a wild guess that this is a Blueband Hermit Crab, on the blurry evidence of the blue patch visible on its claw and the red antennae. It’s also wearing a turban shell, which is that species’ preferred abode.

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I’m not sure what kind of crab this is, but it gives me ideas for creating a pugilistic sci-fi character — it was hopping from side to side, punching with its claws, for all the world like a crustacean boxer.

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This cheerful looking fellow (which I’m pretty sure is a young Dungeness Crab) really likes being a drummer in a rock band.


One of the challenges of taking photos in an aquarium is the rippling of the water and reflections of lights. So this scallop is a bit blurry, but in a bit of shameless anthropomorphizing, I imagine it as the lead singer in the crab’s rock band.

But what about the fish? Well, speaking of difficulties, most of them moved so fast I couldn’t get a good fix on them. And there were so many species (many of which I have nice motion-blurred photos of)! Here are a few:

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Black-eyed Goby, Rhinogobiops nicholsi, (you can see where the “goby” comes from, what a mouthful!). These fish all begin as females and become male when they reach around 7cm in length. That orange thing is a very small (or maybe fragmentary) Orange Sea Pen. Here’s a better-looking one, alongside a plumose anemone:

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The orange sea pen is a colonial cnidarian (don’t ask me how to pronounce that); this means that it is made up of individual, tentacled polyps which have their own specialised functions. One of them, the primary polyp, loses its own tentacles and forms both the stalk of the colony and the bulbous base with which it anchors itself deep into the soft sand or mud.

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This is the Grunt Sculpin, which likes to live in the empty casings of Giant Acorn Barnacles, and mimics a live barnacle’s feeding cirri by sticking its orange tail out and waving it around.

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Here’s another view, in which its stripes show up a bit better. I think these guys have to win the fishy cuteness prize.


Another sculpin, and I’m sorry to say I did not take note of which kind this is (although I think it may be the juvenile Cabezon mentioned on one of the tank signs). There are many different sculpins in our waters, from teeny-tiny ones scooting around the bottoms of tidepools to the meter-long Cabezon.

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Here’s another, the Sailfin Sculpin, which has a specialized dorsal fin held erect and extended forward — makes me think of a unicorn!

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One of my favourites is the Painted Greenling — they are very hard to catch on camera when swimming though, so all my decent photos of these are when they are resting.

Then there’s the favourite of any aquarium fortunate enough to have one: the Giant Pacific Octopus. The current one is a female — as with all the animals, they only keep them for a while, then release them back into the local waters.

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She’s watching me!

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A coy look under the tentacle.

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Octopus suckers!!!

I always love the chance to take pictures of the Sea Anemones — I can’t get underwater to see most of the beautiful species we have around here, so am delighted to have the chance to do it in an aquarium.

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The ethereal Plumose Anemone never fails to mesmerize me. Some of them have white stalks, and some have orange stalks, and I’ve not yet been able to find out why.

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The Small Plumose Anemone is similar, but without the lobed structure of the tentacular disc.

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The uber-cute Strawberry Anemones are even smaller than their fruity namesake.

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Here is the festive White-Spotted Rose Anemone. I think this could inspire a great Hallowe’en costume!

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And of course the lush Giant Green Anemone. This one has a bit of its last meal lingering on its face.

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Two different kinds of Sea Cucumbers here. In the foreground is a Giant Sea Cucumber, and in the background, half buried in the sand, frilly feeding arms extended, is the Red Sea Cucumber. The Giant Sea Cucumber is soft and velvety to the touch; I didn’t try the other one — after all, it was busy eating!

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I’m not really sure what these are; the feathery things look like barnacle feeding cirri, but the rest of them looks like… some kind of tubeworm? If anyone knows, help me out here in the comments!


This quotation was on a wall back by the loo. It pretty much sums up how I feel about all this looking-at-nature stuff. And on this trip, I did indeed look from the tidepools to the stars and back! I think I’m going to have to make another try at reading Steinbeck, this time not as a high-school reading assignment…

Speaking of books, the Aquarium has a nice little gift shop, and I treated myself to an early birthday present of some good reading to take home with me:

David Hall’s Beneath Cold Seas is a book I had seen and wanted for a while, but just hadn’t gotten around to getting for myself. Take a look at the link I’ve given for what a real pro can do photographing undersea creatures!

Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells by Helen Scales is the one I’m currently reading. The publisher describes it as “an exuberant romp, revealing amazing tales of these undersea marvels”, and so far that seems to be accurate, and I’m enjoying it very much.

Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate by Jennifer A. Mather, Roland C. Anderson, and James B. Wood, with a beautiful photo section, is one I’m looking forward to reading. Described by the publisher as “the first comprehensive natural history of this smart denizen of the sea”, it caught me as I leafed through it in the gift shop with the personal-narrative stories inserted amongst a wealth of scientific information.

Books that have been helpful to me in this series, particularly this and the last two posts: Marine Life of the Pacific Northwest by Andy Lamb and Bernard P. Hanby, and Whelks to Whales by Rick M. Harbo.

This is the sixth in my week-long series about my trip to the West Coast of Vancouver Island; if you’d like to read more, here are the rest so far: Beaches, Surf Huts, and Palazzos, (about the beaches of Pacific Rim National Park) Glamping for the Impecunious (glamping is glamour camping), Total Fun with a Partial Eclipse (which kind of says it all), Life Between Rock and Sea (about tidepools), and All Washed Up — On the Sand (seaweed, seashells, jellyfish, and mysteries).

Tomorrow: the Wild Pacific Trail!

UPDATE: the lovely folks at the Aquarium got back to a Facebook message I sent and identified the two mystery finds in my “All Washed Up — On the Sand” post. Thanks, Ucluelet Aquarium!

One response to “An Aquarium Photo Safari

  1. Pingback: The Wild Pacific Trail | Karen Gillmore Art·

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