The Seaside Aquarium celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. The May 30, 1937, Memorial Day weekend opening — “unmarred by any accident or difficulty” — was described by the Seaside Signal “far above the level of the corresponding weekend of the previous years.” The aquarium’s “unusual attractions” included “an electric ray fish capable of gathering enough electricity to provide a shock.”
Keith Chandler, the fourth general manager of the aquarium, is a Seaside native who started his career at the aquarium in 1978 at the age of 21. The aquarium has been attracting visitors to Seaside since the time founder George Smith and others expanded their aquarium business from Depoe Bay to Seaside.
Smith bought the former swimming pool on the Prom, remodeled it and reopened it as an aquarium.
Entry was priced at an admission families could afford at 10 and 15 cents. It was a time before television and most Americans had little acquaintance with marine life. Local fishermen brought in deep sea creatures as exotic as the magical worlds of Jules Verne and adventure novelists. There was no Jacques Cousteau or his underwater cameras. The octopus, wolf eel and anemones were among the aquarium’s first attractions.
But it is the seals people remember most, so popular “Feed the seals!” is the motto of the aquarium on a billboard on the south side of town.
“We don’t train our seals, the public does,” Chandler said. “The seals train the public to feed them.”
Although baby seals don’t live with their parents after being weaned, they stay with the same colony, up to 250 or 300 seals. “We have 11,” Chandler said. “They all have different personalities. Some are more friendly, some are more aggressive, some are timid. It’s just like having 11 cats.”
The life span of a seal in the wild is about 15 years; in captivity about 20. He admits he likes some seals more than others — “but I’ve liked them all.”
One named Jenny, who lived to a venerable 27 years, came to mind as a special bond. Jenny was expert at taking and hiding things from Chandler.
Four generations of seals have been born and raised in the aquarium. And, of course, they all have names: today’s cast includes Casey, Pinni, Damian, Frankie, Shireen, Vivian, Reagan, Lewis, Cosmo, Scully and Greta.
Brotula and greenlings
Along with the seals, the aquarium is home to a veritable encyclopedia of Pacific Coast marine life.
As recited by aquarium staff member Tiffany Boothe, the list includes, to name only a few, blue perch, vermilion rockfish, wolf eels, New England lobster, brown rockfish, copper rockfish, red-tail perch, white perch, urchins, keyhole limpets, sand sole, English sole, kelp greenling (“She’s a ‘meanling,’” Boothe said.) and brotula (“He’s the coolest.”).
As otherworldly as these animals appear, Chandler is an expert at identification.
In his first years Chandler acknowledged he was baffled a few times, but with experience and the internet as a tool, he was able to determine even the most exotic marine life, like the fish brought to the aquarium by local fishermen in the wake of the Japanese tsunami.
Chandler is the go-to guy for marine life identification, Boothe said.
“There was a time visitors reported this huge, long, flat fish,” she said. “I had no idea what it was. I called Keith and said they’re right, this is a very strange fish. Even now I don’t know how to describe it.”
She told Chandler the fish “is really long and has a big eye.”
Chandler identified it as a “king of the salmon,” a 6-foot ribbon fish, so named by Native Americans for the way they “led” salmon heading into rivers to spawn.
Aquarium staff play a critical role in the health and protection of vulnerable sea creatures.
The aquarium’s range with the Marine Mammal Stranding Network stretches from Arch Cape to Long Beach, Washington.
These include high-profile whale rescues, rare turtles and seals.
When a whale washed ashore in Cape Falcon this year, aquarium staff were there.
When olive ridleys were stranded along the coast last year the team helped arrange transport for specialized medical care at Sea World in San Diego.
In February, when a loggerhead turtle was swept onto the beach near Chapman Point, Boothe hiked a mile-and-a-half before wading into water and with the help of a volunteer, Mollie Schmidt, carried the turtle down the beach and over the dunes. When the tide came in, Boothe found herself swimming with the turtle through the icy cold winter sea water,
“Swimming through the cave was not part of the original plan,” Boothe laughed in the aftermath. “A lot of times you can walk around Chapman Point. That was what we were planning on doing.”
R.J. Marx is The Daily Astorian’s South County reporter and editor of the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette.