By Arwyn Rice
Peninsula Daily News
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The center's director, Deborah Moriarty, said keeping the doors open seven days a week during winter months — a decision made early last year — led to 8,155 visits in the off-season compared with 7,663 visits in the summer season from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Most of the off-season visits were from locals, not tourists from out of town, according to statistics she has compiled.
Even when cold wind is blowing and rain is falling, North Olympic Peninsula residents — and the occasional tourist — keep coming in the doors, Moriarty said.
“People come down with their kids for a couple of hours with the touch tanks,” she said.
Before last year, the center was open officially only on weekends during the winter.
Now, it is open from noon to 4 p.m. daily in the winter, with admission by donation during winter operations.
In the summer, entrance is $4 for adults and $1 for children, with hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.
Although the biggest bump was last year, attendance has been rising steadily since 2008, when the marine science center, which was operated jointly by Peninsula College and the city of Port Angeles for 26 years, spun off to become an independent nonprofit organization.
Visitor attendance increased from 6,960 in 2008 to 15,918 in 2012, not including students, Moriarty said.
The number of students who attend as part of structured science classes similarly has increased, from about 1,500 in 2008 to 3,017 in 2012, she said.
Moriarty said the growing cadre of trained volunteers has made it possible for the doors to stay open in the winter without an increased cost for staffing the center.
The center is named after the late Arthur D. Feiro, a high school and college science teacher.
He raised the funds to create it in 1981 to teach all those who pass through its doors the wonders of the ocean.
Feiro wrote that he wanted the center to become a “multifaceted, dynamic, living, breathing facility . . . [providing a] public display of marine organisms and ecosystems, a teaching laboratory, a public center for marine studies and a point of interest for tourists.”
More than a dozen tanks
The 3,500-square-foot marine center has more than a dozen large tanks that house animals rarely seen by typical beach visitors.
These include the lion nudibranch, a gold-colored predatory sea slug with a bubble-like hood it uses to surround and catch prey.
In the past year, a wall full of small tanks in the octopus room was replaced with one large, well-lit tank that houses a wide variety of local sea anemones, and a circular wall tank on the opposite side is populated mostly by “volunteers” — nudibranch, fish, shrimp and a sea cucumber — which arrived with the seawater as tiny larvae and took up residence where they felt comfortable.
Today, some of those creatures live with several generations of their offspring.
The main room is dominated by green touch tanks, where visitors can reach in and touch tidepool sealife, including sea stars, sea cucumbers, anemones and other nonharmful creatures of the water.
500-gallon tank donated
A huge barbell-shaped tank holds a variety of larger fish.
Volunteers are in the process of removing a number of small tanks to install a recently donated 500-gallon tank that is expected to fill most of another wall to display nearshore marine life, animals that live just off the beach in the sand and rocks.
Lola, a female giant Pacific octopus, lived in a massive tank at the center for a year, like the octopus before her, and was fed live crab caught by volunteers.
She recently reached breeding age and has been released into Freshwater Bay, where she originally was captured, to lay her eggs and die, to complete the natural life cycle of the octopus.
The staff is on the hunt for a new baby octopus to take her place, including an unsuccessful night trip led by Bob Campbell, Feiro facility coordinator, to local tidepools exposed during recent very low tides.
“You have to look very carefully,” Campbell said.
Campbell said he also plans to rework the octopus tank, including improvements to the octopus “cave,” a recess that allows the octopus to feel safe yet lets visitors see the shy animal.
All of the creatures come from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, just outside Port Angeles Harbor.
Some of the creatures were brought in by anglers or beach visitors, and some took up residence on their own through the center's water intake system, while others were caught by marine center personnel.
There is a classroom for student activities, office space and a small laboratory for Feiro employees behind the octopus room.
Lessons continue outside of the building as well, with City Pier and adjacent Hollywood Beach serving as outdoor classrooms.
Students map and clean beaches, Feiro staff drag a seine on the floor of the harbor to demonstrate what plants and animals live just a few yards from where beachcombers dip their toes in cold waves, and volunteer divers pull up what they find under City Pier.
For more information, visit www.feiromarinelifecenter.org or phone 360-417-6254.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.