Behind The Scenes At Newport's Renowned Aquarium

Jun 15, 2017

The Oregon Coast Aquarium has been ranked among the top ten in North America. As part of our 50th Anniversary Road Trip Series, KLCC’s Tiffany Eckert shares the sights and sounds during a private tour of Newport’s 25-year old aquarium.

(Hear the sound of running water)

This sound along the path to the aquarium is a sure indicator of what’s to come. At the entrance, I stand in line with excited kids and their grown-ups. I’m here to meet Peter Pearsall.

Reporter: “Thank you for inviting us to come and check things out. Where are we going first, Peter?”

Pearsall: “We’re gonna go behind the scenes to the pinniped holding area. All the seals and sea lions.”

Reporter: “Sounds great. Let’s go!”

Peter Pearsall is spokesman for the Oregon Coast Aquarium. He gave us a tour.
Credit Hal Hermanson

This state of the art facility was built on the site of defunct lumber mill. The aquarium operates with 70 full time staff and hundreds of volunteers.

(The sound of footsteps, keys and a door opening)

Reporter:“Coming in through door 13.”

(splashes) And then, we see them—shiny, black, seal noses poke up from a large pool.  “Look a wave! They are totally waving at us.”

Brittany Blades is Senior Mammologist with the Oregon Coast  Aquarium. She and her team take care of the seals, sea otters and sea lions. Blades guides one out of the pool for a visit.

Reporter: “Oh look at that…beautiful. Now that’s who?”

Blades: “That’s Boots, she’s one of our Harbor Seals.”

Boots is a striking creature, small of build, with a gentle gaze and leopard-like markings on her sleek fur.

Blades: “She’s lived under human care her entire life. She’s actually turning 30 this year so happy birthday Boots.

From a waist pouch, Blades grabs small handfuls of tasty capelin and squid.

Blades: “All of the food is restaurant quality seafood, hand picked this morning”

Seals have a pretty impressive set of teeth. They don’t use them to chew their food, but to catch it.

So, Boots’ nose is really soft and her whiskers tickle. I know this because…

“She’s gonna come up and she’s gonna give you a little smooch on your cheek,” says Blades. “Okay? Boots, kiss.” (hear the sound of a seal kiss!) Good! Good girl!”

Reporter: “That was lovely. I feel a solidarity.”

These animals are federally protected and it is illegal to approach them in the wild. Blades says tourists hanging out on the piers often hear a barking sea lion and think it’s a seal. So, in the interest of science—here’s a little explainer:

This—is the sound a harbor seal makes:(hear raspberry murmer)

And THIS—(hear loud bellow) is a sea lion.

Meet Max. This blubbery boy is 27 years old and weighs a quarter of a ton. Over the summer, he eats about 15 pounds of food a day.

“Wow a real looker.”

“Yeah, he’s a handsome boy.” (hear Max bellow in agreement!)

Next Peter Pearsall walks us to the seabird exhibit.

(hear doors creaking)

“We have the double doors here in the aviary, says Pearsall. “All the birds here are flighted. There are no clipped wings in here…There are six species of birds here. (An unseen pigeon guillemot calls out to a mate from its burrow.)

Five are seabirds and one is a shorebird.  These guys here are Common Murre. People often mistake them for penguins. Because they like to stand upright, they waddle.” (hear a loud bird call)

“That’s the resident shore bird here—that’s a black oyster catcher. They’re very vocal as you just heard.”  

“There’s a Tufted Puffin. One of our more charismatic species. People love these birds. With their breeding plumage, they have these sort of blond tufts that look like eyebrows from each eye that sort of sweep back from the head. A white mask and this very wide, tall, orange bill.”

Reporter: “From the back, his hair kind of looks like Trump.”

Pearsall: “We get that comment a lot. A lot of people have noticed that. (laughs)”

Leaving the aviary, we head indoors to the Open Sea portion of the facility. A tunnel cuts between crystal clear water tanks full of native fish species. This is what most expect when visiting an aquarium. Pearsall says this exhibit is one of the most popular: the Shark Tank.

Pearsall: “There’s one cruising toward us right now. Broad nose seven gilled shark. Seven to eight feet long, its the largest here…There goes a leopard shark…"

(hear a child say "Look stingray!”--the animal is actually a California bat ray.)

Pearsall explains this is where the renowned killer whale, Keiko, lived and rehabilitated until 1998. (Keiko died of pneumonia years after being released in the coastal waters of Norway.) The Oregon Coast Aquarium decided to covert Keiko’s enormous tank into the Passages of the Deep. Now, we stand surrounded by endless activity.

A giant halibut slowly swims above us, exposing its pure white belly. All around are various species of rock fish.

We head off toward the Sandy Shores exhibits. Here visitors can observe tidal pool life. Touch star fish and sea urchins.

Now, don’t get me wrong: sharks are a thrill and seal kisses can’t be beat. But I came to this aquarium to see a couple of rare crustaceans: albino crabs.

Reporter: “Had you ever seen a white Dungeness before?”

“I had not. Never,” Pearsall says. “These two individuals were brought to us pretty much about a month and a half apart from each other. That’s incredible in and of itself. And after I spoke with ODFW shell fish biologists, they told me that the occurrence is something like one in a million crabs.”

Obviously, the crabbers who caught them, couldn’t see these unique creatures becoming somebody’s meal.

The Oregon Coast Aquarium is open daily throughout the summer and hosts more than 400,000 visitors annually. Reporting from Newport with production assistance from Hal Hermanson, I’m Tiffany Eckert, KLCC News.

For more about Newport's Oregon Coast Aquarium:

http://aquarium.org/events-calendar/world-oceans-day/

http://aquarium.org/education/teacher-resources/

http://aquarium.org/aquarium-partners-with-researchers-to-monitor-fishes-in-marine-reserves/