It’s a stunning drive just a few miles from Coos Bay, Oregon along the Cape Arago Highway. This rugged road paves the way for you to visit some of the most scenic beaches, parks, and trails on the west coast. It’s also the throughway to the charming fishing village of Charleston, with its commercial harbor, marina, shipyard, and a cool maritime vibe. Our family has enjoyed visiting the area dozens of times and have always found something interesting along the docks, activities around the waterways, and enjoyed savory seafood from our favorite restaurants.
This little gem is also the picture perfect home to the University of Oregon’s marine education division: Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB). Offering the perfect backdrop for oceanic exploration and field work, OIMB has been an educational hub for marine biology students for over 90 years, providing renowned teaching, research, and lecture opportunities. I’ve attended public lectures and open houses at OIMB and have enjoyed mixing with the faculty and students who have great enthusiasm for our ocean and its aquatic creatures. OIMB furthered their commitment to support interest and ocean education by building the Charleston Marine Life Center, directly across from the OIMB campus.
Open to the public this past Memorial Day weekend, this was the first opportunity my daughter and I had to make a visit. Not knowing what to expect, we assumed it would be a tourist experience that showcased basic tide pool creatures. So glad to be wrong! We were both so pleased with what the Center has to offer and how much fun we had learning more about ocean life. The Center is a well-planned combination of visual tanks, natural science museum, and hands-on discovery stations.
Through the Looking Glass
The aquarium portion of the Center is compact in size but houses some curious residents including serious looking rockfish and a group of elegant long-bodied pipefish. There is a salmon tank, which provides a look at young fish schooling below the surface and a chance to feed them pellets from above. A personal favorite was a small octopus that sprawled across his tank to make eye-contact with us through the glass.
We were greeted by Volunteer Fred Betz, a retired biology teacher who taught middle school for 30 years. He told us that his favorite part of the job is that he continues to learn something new and interesting every day. His exuberance for education is shared with Center visitors along with a kind and genuine sense of humor.
The second floor opens into the museum with intriguing skeletons of ocean creatures surrounding you as you take in all the details. There are dolphins, seal and sea lions, smaller toothed whales, an enormous whale skull that we could examine within just a few inches away. My daughter spent 20 minutes looking through the expansive shell display, which included local seashells and scallops under glass and then drawers full of other shell varieties from around the world to compare. One corner is devoted to cephalopod specimens which included an encased squid that was about 3 feet long, fully intact with tentacles reaching out in full glory.
This is where we met Volunteer Bob Schalck, a former optical engineer who repairs and maintains the microscopes and lenses for the discovery section of the Center. This area provides an impressive assortment of preserved creatures that visitors can view under microscopes.
Schalck is not only an asset for sustaining the microscopes at the Center, he is a former scuba diver who has first-hand experience with life under the surface. He explained how the teeth of a shark move in a “conveyor belt” fashion along the jaw to constantly be replaced by new ones. We were able to handle different species of shark jaws, comparing the smooth sharpness of a Mako’s teeth to that of Great White’s which has serrated edges on every tooth. Schalck has a way of explaining facts about sea life in a practical way that makes you appreciate every animal for their distinctive traits and adaptability.
Visit on a Dime
The Charleston Marine Life Center is also maintained in part by OIMB graduate students. The close proximity of the OIMB facility and staff adds a genuine theme of marine science to every aspect of the Center. Situated to view the Charleston Harbor, visitors sometimes get a chance to watch commercial fishing boats off-load their catch, separating fish and sorting crab for market. Along with providing educational opportunities for visitors, the Center offers class tours and student events that are diverse and interactive. The Center is open Wednesday-Saturday from 11 am to 5 pm. OIMB has made it a family affordable activity, charging only $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, and students are free with school ID.
Now, when my daughter and I visit Charleston for a day at the beaches, we will be sure to stop periodically at the Charleston Marine Life Center to see new additions and see how much that little octopus grows. So thrilled to have another avenue to enjoy the natural gifts that come from living on the Oregon Coast.