California sea cucumbers, purple-hinged scallops, green surf anemones, moon snails, scalyhead sculpins, wolf eels, giant Pacific octopuses: Ucluelet’s rugged coastline is a sea-creature lover’s dream. Those are just some of the species you might see at the town’s mini aquarium—with an emphasis on the word mini. The exhibit currently occupies a waterfront space the size of a construction trailer, but a larger, permanent building is in the works.
The growth of the Ucluelet Aquarium reflects the changes in the coastal community as a whole. Once known as “Tofino’s ugly sister”, Ucluelet isn’t just coming into its own but positively blooming. Turned off by Tuff City’s throngs of tourists, more visitors are heading to Ucluelet for its laid-back, working-town atmosphere and lower prices.
But there’s more to Ukee, as it’s affectionately known by locals, than a more affordable, intimate West Coast experience. Just a short drive from Pacific Rim National Park, it has its own unique draws. The aquarium is just one of them.
Head curator Dave Hurwitz, a former Tofino-based crab fisher who moved to Ucluelet five years ago, says that part of what makes the aquarium distinct is its focus on sustainability: twice a year, all of the specimens, which are collected from local waters, are returned to the ocean.
“I fell in love with the catch-and-release ethic,” Hurwitz says in a phone interview. “Release days are huge community events. We get school students to help return the creatures back to the wild.”
The Wild Pacific Trail is another unforgettable attraction. (It even made the New York Times’ “31 Places to Go in 2010” list.) Skirting Ucluelet’s jagged cliffs and meandering through enormous old-growth cedar and spruce trees, the spectacular trail overlooks Barkley Sound, the Broken Group Islands, and stretches of nothing but open ocean. Viewing platforms situated 30 metres above reefs allow for ideal storm watching and, from February to late May, grey-whale watching.
If witnessing waves crash onto rocks with a Scotch on the rocks is more your speed, it doesn’t get better than the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort. With floor-to-ceiling windows, seaside hot pools, an Ocean Wise menu, and a wine cellar that looks out into a surge channel, the hotel is a harmoniously opulent blend of land and sea.
Then there’s sport fishing, bear watching, nearby surfing and beachcombing, and an emphasis on ecofriendly tourism. Ucluelet appears to be growing up in all the right ways.