Hakai Magazine

Melanie Knight, shown snorkeling with a whale shark in the Philippines, started her career as a volunteer interpreter at the aquarium in Ucluelet, British Columbia, when the facility was “just a shack on the beach.” Photo courtesy of Melanie Knight

Coastal Job: Community Aquarium Creator

Melanie Knight helps coastal communities put their ocean dwellers on display, in an ecologically minded way.

Authored by

As told to Megan Osmond-Jones

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Melanie Knight is the CEO of Ocean to Eye Level, an organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia, that helps start small community aquariums in coastal towns, based on a model of collecting organisms from the nearby ocean, caring for them, and then returning them to the sea. She works with aquarium founders, guiding the process as they take their aquarium from back-of-napkin idea stage to opening day.

I really love starting stuff. I love the start-up phase and the challenges that come with it. I love the design process—not only the conceptual design and the floor planning and the tank design, but also storytelling and fundraising and getting people on board. Selling the dream.

Community aquariums focus on the life in our own backyards, underneath the big blue blanket of the surface of the sea. We give people an opportunity to connect with the animals. They’re like, “Oh cool, I’m curious about that. Tell me more about why this animal has spikes.” Or “Why does this animal poop through its mouth?” When you get curious about something and learn more about it, along comes caring. When people care about something, they take steps to conserve it.

The collect-care-release philosophy is very important to me. It’s reassuring for visitors to know that the animals will go back. It gives the animals the ability to continue to procreate naturally. They’re on display just long enough to provide an educational experience.

We’ve helped start seven aquariums and are working with a dozen other communities that are in the early stages.

Starting a community aquarium is like shooting off a rocket. It takes a lot of energy in the first couple of months and years to just get it off the ground. Ethically we need to make sure that we’ve got the right client. Not everyone should be given license to just start collecting animals and put them in the tank. We only collect within the bioregion and with proper permits. We have to provide Fisheries and Oceans Canada with a list of all possible animals we might collect, from worms to amphipods, to crabs and fish. And because the aquariums are open systems with unfiltered sea water cycling in, other animals come in and colonize the tanks. So we have to account for that, too.

I’m always surprised just who comes out of the woodwork in a community to provide support. I contacted the harbormaster in Petty Harbour, an active fishing community in Newfoundland, asking if there would be any interest in a mini aquarium, and from that very first phone call, the fishermen there have been our number one supporters. They actually gave us access to a retired fish plant to move into.

We asked the fishermen to collect cod for us. When they went out, they were like, “Sure, yeah, I know how to catch them. But how do I take care of them once I get them on my boat?” We gave them buckets, bubblers [aerators], and handling instructions. When they brought them in, they helped us put the cod into the exhibit. One of the fishermen stepped back and said, “After 30 years of fishing, I’ve never seen them swim.” It’s emotional to think that everyone can take a second look at the ocean. These exhibits are not just for children.

In that part of Newfoundland, if you want to eat a cod, there are plenty of places for that. But if you want to see one swimming around, go to the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium. Fishermen bring their grandkids, everyone gathers around and tells fishing stories. It has become sort of a cultural community hub.

I believe that every coastal town could benefit from a community aquarium.