A Must Visit: Charleston Marine Life Center

By Becky Hoag

A peaceful, scenic two-and-a-half hour drive southwest of the University of Oregon, will lead you to the small town of Charleston, where the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) and the new Charleston Marine Life Center (CMLC) sit overlooking the Pacific Ocean. OIMB is where marine biology majors flock from all over the country to study with some of the best professors. There they can study live samples collected from the many marine habitats available to them a short walk or drive from the facility.

The CLMC, which opened last May, is the area’s first net-zero building that uses wind turbine energy in place of fossil fuels. This project was made possible by the University of Oregon Sustainability program and stands as UO’s undertaking with regards to using wind power. The turbine is viewable from the docks, emerging from the top of the building.

Meanwhile, Oregonians can get a taste of the species that OIMB students are so enthusiastic to study and the ecosystems

that the organisms call home. Before they even walk through the doors of the CMLC, located across the street from OIMB, they are welcomed by a giant humpback whale skull, which prepares them for the adolescent grey whale and orca skeletons that hang on the ceiling of the first floor of the center. All of the skeletons in the CMLC were found beached on the Oregon coast or accidently caught in a fishing net by local fishermen.

To the left, a pool modeled after an ocean habitat hosts friendly creatures such as sea stars, decorator crabs and California sea cucumbers that visitors can tough. To the right, fish tanks display different ecosystems and creatures including rockfish and octopuses.

“The place is really nice because it has stuff that you can look at and touch. The level of information about the animals…there’s a lot of rich information,” Trish Mace, director of CMLC said. “Young kids might not read [the informational panels], but there’s plenty for them to see and touch and look at; and for those who do want that richer information experience, they have that.”

Mace makes sure that volunteer guides are well well-versed in different methods of viewing the exhibits based on age and interests. A good example involves the whale skeletons. Some might find it cool to look at them, but to a volunteer with a trained eye, skeletons can reveal a lot about the individual whale, as well as the species in general. They can even look at a skeleton and determine how the whale likely died!

“Because of [CMLC’s] design, we have been seeing some very positive experiences from the little kids all the way through college classes,” Mace said.

Skeletal exploration and the evolution behind species are topics that students can explore in one of the programs that the CMLC offers called “Marine Mammals in Motion”. While OIMB also offers K-12 classes as a part of Graduates in K-12 Education Project, CMLC expands the breadth of programs available to the community.

For individual viewers who are interested in looking closer at the living organisms on display, the front desk provides a magnifying glass that visitors can attach to their phone’s camera. Specks on the glass of a tank reveal to be small sea stars or cup coral on the glass.

To connect the exhibits all back to their original source, there’s a balcony on the first floor with two tanks on stands in the middle. That way, visitors can look out at the ocean’s surface while seeing what happens below the water at the same time.

This is where UO students will present their research from the fall of 2016. Ten students from the Environmental Leadership Program (ELP) worked with the CMLC to construct five exhibit panels that talk about the local estuaries such as the Coos Bay Estuary and the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Their work emphasized salmon, Dungeness crab and estuary conservation, discussing problems that the estuaries face like pollution and invasive species. These panels will be open to the public in the next coming months.

One of the unique interpretive panels they will include is a fish ladder, which is used to help salmon move from upstream to the ocean and back. With the help of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the fish ladder releases about 5,000 salmon each year. While this fish ladder is mostly used for educational purpose, it creates a positive impact on the wild salmon populations.

The CMLC is open Wednesday through Saturday from 11am to 5pm. Come support our students at ELP and OIMB by visiting CMLC. It is free for children and students with IDs, and only $5 for adults and $4 for seniors.