Oregon Coast Aquarium

Friday January 9, 2015

We spent a very enjoyable day at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. There was lots to see and lots of volunteers to talk to. The volunteers we did talk to were very knowledgeable and passionate about their aquarium. We went on a cloudy Friday and almost had the place to ourselves, at least for the morning. A few more people showed up by afternoon but never enough to be considered a crowd or block our view of the feedings.

We knew life was different on the west coast as soon as we paid for our tickets and headed into the main aquarium… I mean out of the aquarium. You enter through what I would call the administrative building with the ticket counter, offices, coffee bar and cafe.

From this the entry hall/admin building, you step through the doors into a courtyard with a covered walkway on one side leading to the gift shop and the first of the exhibit buildings. We were quite surprised to be back outside. The gravel courtyard was raked smooth in a very Japanese Garden, Zen sort of way. We were reluctant to disburb the pattern at first but eventually tromped all over it in search of awesome marine animals.

We studied the map and quickly got our bearings. The aquarium consists of three indoor exhibit buildings plus numerous outdoor exhibits for the octopus, sea otters, seals and sea lions, and a seabird aviary. They also have a very neat fourth building called Passages of the Deep where you walk through three tunnels running through huge aquariums filled with sharks, rays, and other sea life. The fish glide over you and beside you and some hover at eye level and stare back at you. This is their world and we were the ones in the “cage”.

The day we were there the aquarium staff scheduled eight programs where they fed the sea lions (twice), sea otters (three times), seabirds, the fish in the Coastal Waters tank, and the sharks in the Passages of the Deep tank. We caught each program once.

While wandering around inside the main buildings, we watched a diver cleaning one of the tanks. This sure beats those little magnetic scrapers people use on their home fish aquariums.

How to clean a fish tank

How to clean a fish tank

We spent a lot of time checking out all the interesting animals in the wall tanks and their touch pool. Most of their exhibits were accompanied by signs that provided interesting facts about one or two creatures in the exhibit. That’s how we found out that the Wolf eel is not really an eel. That’s because it has flexible fin spines (eels have spineless fins) and large gill openings (eels have small gill openings). Wolf eels also have buck teeth. Who knew?

Wolf eel

Wolf eel

They had quite a few small tanks that showed off one or two particular species of sea life, such as this Oregon Cancer Crab. We watched as he did little crab push ups and shifted that rock back and forth over him. They like to hide in crevices and apparently he hasn’t figured out he isn’t big enough to fit in this one anymore. Those little pink sea anemones must have thought there was an earthquake.

Oregon Cancer Crab

Oregon Cancer Crab

A larger tank held these Japanese spider crabs, which are the largest crab species in the world. The lighting in the tank gave them an other worldly feel.

Japanese Spider Crabs

Japanese Spider Crabs

One of the volunteers came up to us and excitedly told us that the giant octopus was active. Boy was it ever. We watched it “walk” along the glass for about 5 minutes. We passed later in the day to see people peering into an empty tank as the octopus stayed hidden in its cave. Thank you volunteer! We are glad we didn’t miss this.

Giant octopus

Giant octopus

The sea otter has to be one of the cutest, most adorable animals on the planet. The only thing separating us from this grooming sea otter was a couple inches of plexiglass. We spent a long time watching these animals eat, groom, and play. They eat 25% of their body weight every day so the aquarium does three public feedings a day. You can stand with your nose right up against the glass to watch them. The truly sad thing we learned is that the three male sea otters in this tank are the largest raft of sea otters in Oregon. They were hunted to extinction for their super plush fur and Oregon has not been successful in reintroducing the species. Judge is their most famous otter (with his photo on billboards and everything). He was rescued as a baby and released back into the wild. They were keeping track of him and saw that he didn’t do well, so they took him back, tried to rehab him again, then released him again, then took him back, then released him again. They finally gave up and Judge will live out his life in the aquarium.

Sea otter feeding on clams

Sea otter feeding on clams

Grooming sea otter

Grooming sea otter – pedicure anyone?

The aquarium staff spends a lot of time training the sea otters, seals and sea lions. Much of their training revolves around getting them to cooperate with their medical exams. The animals seem quite motivated to follow the signals. Probably because the payoff is a nice fish, clam or lobster.

Trainer taking her sea lion for a walk

Trainer taking her sea lion for a walk

The aquarium’s seabird aviary had half a dozen seabird species including the common murre, pigeon guillemot, tufted and horned puffins, rhinoceros auklets, and black oyster catchers. We were lucky in that some of the seabirds were changing from their non-breeding season colors to their breeding season colors. The eyebrow tufts on the tufted puffin below will turn bright white within the month. Several of the bird species have totally different looks for the breeding and non-breeding seasons and go through an extensive molt during the changeovers. Some of the birds had started their mating rituals, which seemed to include a lot of loud vocalizations.

Tufted Puffin

Tufted Puffin

One thing we learned was that most of these birds are in the auk family and auks are considered to be the penguins of the North, even though auks are not that closely related to penguins. That may be true but they sure act a lot like them.

Auks

Auks – not penguins

One of the coolest exhibits was the Passages of the Deep. These tunnels pass through huge tanks containing five species of shark (seven gill, leopard, dogfish, smoothhound, and soupfin), bat rays, Chinook salmon, Pacific mackerel, Northern anchovies, and many others. One of those helpful volunteers told us they only have one female seven gill shark… named Miss Piggy. We got to see her glide over us a few times.

Passages of the Deep

Passages of the Deep

Besides the exhibits, the aquarium has a little walking trail along the Yaquina Bay estuary with deck overlooks and informative signs. It was very nice but we were a little surprised when the trail wound back through a really cute play area for kids into a picnic area and then straight into the cafe. Well, that’s one way to make sure people know it’s there. We did eat lunch at the cafe. John had a tuna melt while Holly had a personal pan pepperoni  pizza. The food was good and reasonably priced.

The gift shop is quite large and well stocked with books, stuffed animals, jewelry, souvenirs and some really beautiful artistic pieces. We left with a beautiful little fleece throw with sea otters and puffins on it. It will keep Holly warm on those chilly mornings in the motorcoach.

If you ever get to the Newport, Oregon area, visiting the Oregon Coast Aquarium is a must. If you can go off season when the crowds are nonexistent, all the better. There is ample parking including a separate RV/bus lot and they have a bus stop for local transportation. If we had been motivated, we could have walked from South Beach State Park to the Aquarium… but we weren’t.

J&H

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