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Plans for local 'community aquarium' on Dartmouth waterfront continue to move forward

The idea of bringing an aquarium to the HRM, one that would highlight the unique characteristics of a maritime city of this size, is nothing new
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Sarah Holleran, animal care lead at the Back to the Sea Society, holds out a number of specimens at their seasonal display at Alderney Landing.

The idea of bringing an aquarium in the HRM, one that would highlight the unique characteristics of a maritime city of this size, is nothing new.

“At least since the 1960s, people have tried to bring aquariums to Halifax, and it’s always failed, it’s never worked out,” says Magali Grégoire, executive director and founder of the Back to the Sea Society.

“People have tried to bring things like Ripley’s in Toronto, or a Vancouver-size aquarium, and we just don’t have the population to sustain an aquarium of that size.”

That hasn’t deterred Grégoire and the Back to the Sea Society though, who have been driving the push to bring a more sustainable and reasonably-sized facility to the HRM’s shores.

Last year, just before COVID hit, the organization had started the first of a two-part study to hash out what a “community aquarium,” as they’re pitching it, would look like and to narrow it down to a few potential sites.

Now, she says, “we do have a good proposal of the size of aquarium that we’re proposing” — an 8,000 square foot structure along the Dartmouth waterfront — “and we did narrow in on a few different areas in Dartmouth,” says Grégoire.

Now, they have launched into the second phase of the study to hammer out a more detailed and specific proposal. “We’re hoping that by the end of this year or early next year, we can really confirm what that location will be and then move on to the next step of fundraising,” Grégoire says.

While Grégoire is confident that this push will eventually lead to an aquarium, it’s impossible to forget the long history of proposals that we don’t have. What makes this time different?

For Grégoire, the key piece of the puzzle is the philosophy underwriting it all. “We’re calling it a ‘community aquarium,’” she says.

It won’t be a facility filled with exotic and rare animals from all corners of the earth, but more of a selection highlighting the biodiversity we have on our own shores.

“We really want everything that’s in our aquarium to fit within a collect, hold and release philosophy. So that’s to say, they’re collected at the start of the season—we like to say ‘on vacation’ while they’re with us, being properly fed and don’t have to worry too much about predation,” Grégoire says.

At the end of the season, they'll be released back into the ocean. She adds while a lot of similarly-run aquariums are naturally seasonal, there is a potential in Halifax for a year-round facility that is able to repeat the catch-and-release process for the winter months as well.

All of it leaves the longstanding dream of a Halifax aquarium closer to becoming reality than it has been in the past.

If all goes well, Grégoire says, they’ll be ready to start a capital campaign and to get public funding by next year. (She says they’ll ideally be going for a “classic capital campaign” — 1/3 from the feds, 1/3 from the province, 1/3 from private donors.)

DSCF1978(1)A hermit crab scurries from shell to shell at the Back to the Sea Society's Touch Tank Hut at Alderney Landing. By Kieran Delamont

Grégoire’s plan to see Halifax gain an aquarium goes beyond just adding another tourist attraction. It isn’t a gimmick, to her, but a missing part of civic life here.

“I just think ocean education is so important, and important to the overall health of our planet,” she says. No conversation about climate change is complete without thinking about the health of the oceans — especially in Nova Scotia, where climate change and our coastlines are eternally tied together.

“If we can present cool facts about the species, and make people understand that the ocean is where they live, and why it’s important to protect the ocean, then they’ll be ready to go out on their own and do that," she adds. "Especially in a city that’s so close to the water, we think it’s important that people know more about it.”

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