By Magali Grégoire
I used to say that it wasn’t until I moved to Atlantic Canada over three years ago that I encountered marine life from the North Atlantic. But the truth is, it wasn’t until I made this move and started volunteering at the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium that I had a significant encounter with ocean life. This small-scale aquarium showcasing only local marine animals changed the course of my career and ignited a passion for ocean conservation. What was the difference between my experience at the Mini Aquarium and that of my previous encounters? The passionate, engaging and dedicated personnel that unveiled the magic of the sea to me. It is these people that can make or break a visit and who can turn the littlest snail into the most fascinating animal.
The first time I was up close to the animals that I now teach so passionately about was while I was completing my Master’s internship at the Montreal Biodôme. Within its walls, the Biodôme has recreated five ecosystems including the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Among the wildlife showcased here are sea cucumbers, anemones, sea stars, urchins and crabs, the very animals I now love to talk about the most. But at the time, I didn’t give these animals the time of day.
During the summer of my internship, the Biodôme was closed to the public. So while I spent many of my lunch breaks walking through the ecosystems, no interpretive staff was ever there to tell me about the small creatures that deserve our attention as much as the large ones. As I strolled through, my attention was mostly focused on the “blockbuster” animals – the sloths and golden lion tamarins of the tropical forest, the lynx of the Laurentian Maple Forest and of course the penguins from the Sub-Antarctic. If you had asked me at the time if an aquarium needs large, charismatic animals to capture visitors’ attention, based on this experience I probably would have said yes.
As you can guess, this is no longer what I think. My experience as a visitor, volunteer and a staff member of various scientific museum institutions has taught me otherwise. I have seen first-hand that not only tourists but those who grew up with the ocean as their backyard can be amazed and intrigued by the animals found in their ocean playground. And yet, although I know this, I had a moment of hesitation this past August when I was about to launch a series of events, the Touch Tank Days, under the umbrella of the Back to the Sea Society.
The Back to the Sea Society is a non-profit whose mission is to spark curiosity for marine life off the coast of Nova Scotia. The ultimate goal of our society is to open a seasonal, catch-and-release, small-scale aquarium within the Halifax Regional Municipality. The purpose of the Touch Tanks Days was to create an event that would allow us to obtain community feedback and serve as a proof of concept.
The Touch Tank Days consisted of two small tanks – one was filled with your typical touch tank animals (urchins, snails, mussels, sea stars, hermit crabs and rock crabs) and the other showcased a moon snail and scallop. The day before we held our first Touch Tank Day, I couldn’t help but worry. What if no one was interested? What if everyone mentioned that these were animals they had seen before? Would people wonder why our operation was so small?
As it turns out, not a single one of my worries was founded. Over the course of seven Touch Tank Days over 1500 people visited and the positive feedback was overwhelming. Just as I had observed in the past, children and adults alike were captivated by what we had to say about these small creatures. Our knowledgeable and passionate volunteer interpreters created a memorable experience for our visitors. When asked in a survey to indicate what was their favourite part of the Touch Tank Days, a majority of the respondents answered learning about the animals and talking with the knowledgeable volunteers.
Often times, we strive to inspire people with big, innovative ideas. I believe that we tend to forget that a small ideas executed right can have just as much of an important, long-lasting impact. Educating while entertaining goes a long way and the Back to the Sea Society will continue to do their best to deliver engaging activities that foster a desire to protect our ocean. If you have a small idea that you are hesitant to launch, I encourage you to do it! Don’t wait for it to be perfect; don’t wait for it to be world-class. The more activities we put out there that contribute to ocean literacy, the more people we will inspire!
Magali is an educator and museologist with a passion for ocean life. She completed her B.Sc. in Biology and Physics at McGill University followed by an M.A. in Museum Studies from UQÀM. Currently the Special Events Coordinator at the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and Chair of Communications of the Fishermen and Scientists Research Society, Magali has close ties with environmental conservation and ocean sustainability in Nova Scotia. Magali is the founder of the Back to the Sea Society and is spearheading the project of bringing a catch-and-release aquarium model to Halifax.