A place to see the diversity of ocean life

Charleston Marine Life Center opens a new window to the sea

Cross the bridge on Cape Arago Highway into Charleston, a fishing village on the southern Oregon Coast. Turn right on Boat Basin Road. A half-mile on the right stands a new two-story building overlooking a marina filled with fishing boats and pleasure craft.

That's where the Charleston Marine Life Center, on the campus of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, opens to the public Saturday, May 21, after a ribbon cutting at 1 p.m. The 6,000-square-foot building has been a dream in progress for about nine years.

"The center is about the diversity of ocean life," says center director Trish Mace. "We want to introduce people of all ages to the incredible diversity of life in the waters off Oregon, and also to the research being done by faculty and students at the University of Oregon and the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology."

Inside are exhibits that showcase Oregon's shores and the deep ocean. Most of what's on display was gathered in research and outreach projects of the institute, which was born after the UO obtained the property in 1931.

The Marine Life Center, built for about $1 million, has five galleries.

Upon entering, the marine mammal gallery is impossible to miss. Massive skeletons of a gray whale and a killer whale hang from the second floor ceiling above the lobby. The gallery, upstairs, features such creatures as dolphins, seals, sea lions and whales collected by students and faculty over the past 50 years. Visitors can touch and reach into the skull of a sperm whale.

A second gallery details Oregon fisheries. It includes an open-air viewing area to watch fishing boats being unloaded. A third gallery, filled with aquaria, covers marine ecosystems. A fourth is a museum gallery on biological diversity. The fifth has museum specimens and an aquarium that encompass deep-sea environments and Oregon's marine reserves.

For Mace, heading the center brings her home. Her children grew up in Charleston while she worked 19 years at the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology. She was part of a K-12 program funded by the National Science Foundation that, from 2003 to 2011, put the institute's graduate students into classrooms at five area school districts to teach and offer hands-on exposure to the habitats and diversity along the Oregon coast.

While away for four years, Mace served as manager of ocean education at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

During an April 25 sneak preview for the Charleston Merchants Association, Mace smiled as she watched a 2-year-old boy giggle as he slowly extended a hand into a tide-pool touch tank on the first floor. The boy's mother encouraged him, while keeping one eye on her 6-year-old son, who was checking out another exhibit.

The boys' father, Tim Hyatt, who heads the merchants association, laughed as his children explored the facility. "We've been super excited about this center for a long time," he said.

"We just did a walking map of Charleston, and we made sure to include this on it. We're really hoping that this is a draw for people who are not only staying in the North Bend and Coos Bay area but for people staying or living in the Roseburg or Eugene areas," Hyatt said. "It's all about bringing people to Charleston, and we're excited about it."

(The walking map is viewable on the association's website. The Marine Life Center is item 6, upper left)

As a public service, the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology had displayed live animals for the public during summer months for more than 25 years in an open-air pavilion constructed by the local rotary clubs near the small boat basin. A marine life center was conceived in 2007 when the Port of Coos Bay initiated a community planning process to invigorate the region.

"We have an extensive collection of deep-sea animals from all over the world," says Craig Young, director of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, whose own research focuses on marine larvae in the deep sea. "We've taken the cream of the crop of those deep-sea animals and put them on display here in the Marine Life Center so that people can look at organisms that have been picked up by the Alvin submersible, for example, at hydrothermal vents and methane seeps."

That’s the kind of reach the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology has. And now with the Charleston Marine Life Center, the UO is opening a new window on ocean life, from the tidepools of the Oregon Coast to the depths of oceans halfway around the world.

By Jim Barlow, University Communications