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Seaside Aquarium Marks 75 Years With A Glance Back In Time


Daily Astorian

SEASIDE — Despite the thundering noise from excited kids shouting to their friends to look at the next exhibit, the octopus swims quietly in his tank.

The wolf eel lies on his side, like he usually does.

The seals continue to loll about in their pool, waiting to splash the next curious visitors to tempt them with food.

It’s a scene that has gone on at the Seaside Aquarium for 75 years. But on Friday, there will be even more reason to get excited about going to the aquarium: Prices will be knocked down to the levels of 1937, when the aquarium opened.

The Seaside Aquarium is one of just a handful of privately-owned aquariums in the United States and the oldest privately owned aquarium on the West Coast, has stayed in the same family since the beginning.

The beginning can be traced back to an octopus.

“It’s a good story,” said Keith Chandler, the aquarium’s manager.

In 1927, an octopus somehow ended up on what was then the Roosevelt Highway in Depoe Bay. It drew crowds of curiosity seekers.

“A group of investors figured that, if so many people stopped to see a dead octopus, they would stop to see a live one,” Chandler said.

So the investors first built the Depoe Bay Museum. Eventually, they realized that Seaside, too, needed an aquarium.

When they searched for a building, they were in luck. An imposing structure on the Prom, once known as Arthur Viggers’ Seaside Baths and Natatorium, stood vacant, a victim of the Great Depression.

Built in 1924 to compete with the Oates Natatorium already in business on the Prom at Broadway, the natatorium contained a saltwater swimming pool with a fountain in the middle where people could sit and stand. A children’s wading pool was in front. Water was drawn directly from the ocean and filtered.

But by 1931, the Depression had taken its toll, and the natatorium closed.

The aquarium’s investors – including George and Greta Smith, who took over the aquarium’s operation from the beginning – built a floor over the pool, installed two tanks and converted the fountain into the base of a hexagonal tank in the center of the room. The children’s wading pool became the seal tank.

George Smith’s design of the pumping system is still in use today. Chandler called it a system that was “logical and filled with common sense.”

Later, the investors built aquariums in Crescent City and Los Angeles, Calif., but only Seaside’s aquarium remains as a privately owned corporation, run by the Smiths’ descendants. The Depoe Bay Aquarium closed in 1998.

Seaside’s abundance of marine life, octopi, sea anemones and rockfish, helped to fill the aquarium.

“We didn’t have TV, Jacques Cousteau or scuba diving in those days,” Chandler said. “What they were showing people hadn’t been seen before: marine wonders.”

The aquarium has stayed pretty much the same for the past 75 years, Chandler said.

“What we offer is an experience that’s up close and personal,” he said. “We’re not a huge mega aquarium that has to survive on tax dollars. We don’t make a huge profit.”

Although one day at the aquarium may appear to the casual observer to be the same as any other day, it’s not, Chandler said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do every day when I come to work. I like that.”

Life there is never dull. In the past nearly eight decades, the aquarium has been the site of:

• The first baby seal born in captivity, 1952

• The rescue – and subsequent death – of a beluga whale, 1967

• The kidnapping of an 80-year-old, 25-pound lobster named Victor, 1994

• The installation of a 36-foot-long skeleton of a gray whale, 1998

• More attention paid to marine education and interactive displays, 1994-present

Living in the aquarium

“I forget how odd it is and how weird it is to live in an aquarium,” said Kathe O’Brien Baldwin, whose grandparents, George and Greta Smith, and later, her parents, Jack and Vivian O’Brien, lived in an apartment behind the gift shop.

“I walk in there and smell my grandmother’s house. Then I think, ‘Wait a minute, everyone else is smelling fish.’”

Baldwin and her sister, Shirleen Ives, inherited the aquarium from her parents (Vivian was the Smiths’ daughter). When Ives died in 1992, her inheritance went to Jerry Ives, of Truckee, Calif.

Together, Baldwin, who lives in Seaside, and Ives run the aquarium as a corporation, governed by a board of directors.

Baldwin still recalls seeing her grandparents working in the aquarium, a job, she said, that absorbed every minute of every day. But her grandfather loved the animals. Birds would come to him (attracted by the smell of fish?); there’s a newspaper clipping showing him with a murre.

But there’s a better clipping of her grandmother in “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.”

“Pet Octopus!” the clipping says. “Greta Smith, Seaside, Ore., keeps an octopus as a pet. It eats food from her mouth and likes to have its back scratched.”

The clipping includes a line drawing of Greta Smith holding an octopus with two of its tentacles around her neck while she is laughing.

“My grandmother was very ‘women’s lib’ in the ’30s and ’40s,” Baldwin said. “If an octopus had to be picked up so the aquarium could get a little publicity, she would do it.”

Baldwin’s mother wasn’t timid either. When an octopus got out of its tank one evening, “she picked it up and put it back. She was in her pajamas at the time,” Baldwin said.

Her parents even had to practice some international diplomacy. In 1963, a Russian fur seal was discovered on the beach, entangled in netting and nearly dead. The seal had a Russian tag attached to its flipper, so the O’Briens wrote to “whoever takes care of fish and wildlife in Russia,” Baldwin said. But the Russians wrote back, saying they didn’t want the seal returned.

Her name was Czaritza. While she recovered, she stayed in the O’Briens’ kitchen, where Vivian O’Brien fed her. But when she was well, she was put into the tank with the harbor seals. It wasn’t as much fun. At night, Czaritza would crawl out of the tank – since she had the ability to walk on all fours, which the harbor seals couldn’t do – and head to the O’Briens’ apartment, banging on the door to be fed.

“I’m sure the harbor seals were blown away,” Baldwin said.

What impressed Baldwin the most about the inner workings of an aquarium was the demanding work. Although she lived much of the time in California when her grandparents still operated it, she would come back to Seaside frequently to help out.

“I remember cutting up fish to feed the seals. It was an unromantic job. There were fish scales all over me all the time. We had fish scales all over the kitchen. My mother was surrounded by fish all the time.”

There were other jobs, too. “How many people walk a whale around to keep it exercised?” Baldwin asked.

Whales, seals and Victor

That whale was the beluga whale that ended up in Seaside in 1967 following the death of two other whales being shipped from Alaska on their way to a Portland boat show.

The first whale was fatally injured in a mishap on the ship from Alaska. The second died when the plane carrying it from the Hillsboro Airport to Seaside was delayed by fog for four hours, and the whale didn’t get into water soon enough.

The third whale, 8 feet long and weighing 600 pounds, survived a couple of weeks at the aquarium before it, too, died.

Chandler recalled the “big hubbub” over the whale in Seaside and seeing it when he was a kid growing up there. It was kept in saltwater in a storage tank on the south side of the building, where the public could peek over a fence and watch the whale swim.

That area is now glassed in, and a giant whale skeleton takes up most of the space. The skeleton of a 36-foot-long gray whale arrived at the aquarium in 1998 from Fort Stevens State Park.

The park needed to move the skeleton for two years during park reconstruction. Chandler, who began working at the center as an aquarist in 1979, hoped to use the display to call attention to the problem of stranded marine mammals. It has been at the aquarium ever since.

Probably the aquarium’s greatest accomplishment is its record of having the first harbor seal ever born in captivity. Unfortunately, the accomplishment wasn’t listed with the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums and may not be recognized as an official “first.”

But in June 1952, Flipper, a harbor seal at the aquarium gave birth to a 19-pound pup. While the then-manager, Arthur Ensor, struggled to find the right food formula to feed the pups, eight babies and their mothers died.

The oldest of the 10 seals the aquarium has currently is Drexler, born June 29, 1983, the day after the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Clyde Drexler. Although both the basketball player and the seal are retired, the seal holds the record for being the longest living male harbor seal at the aquarium.

The youngest seal is Frankie, born June 7, 2011. According to a description in a brochure available at the aquarium, Frankie has “picked up on the fact that if you splash the public, they will give you tons of attention and lots of fish. … She’s a clever one.”

Someone who wasn’t so clever was an Estacada man who kidnapped the aquarium’s prized lobster, Victor, in 1994. The man picked up the 80-year-old, 25-pound lobster from a display tank and walked out with it.

“I chased the guy down the street, and when he saw me, he dropped Victor,” Chandler said.

The lobster hit a curb and cracked his shell. Victor died four days later.

The man was arrested and pled guilty to second-degree theft. Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis said the theft charge was the most serious charge he could bring, based on Victor’s “food value.” He was valued at $10 per pound.

Marquis also said the man couldn’t be charged with the lobster’s death because it couldn’t be proven that his actions had killed Victor.

Irony

Ironically, Victor, who was caught in Maine by a commercial fisherman for the Safeway store, was named Victor for his “victory over death.” A Safeway manager, named Vickie Forney, donated the lobster to the aquarium. A nun suggested the name to honor Forney and Victor’s near-fatal outcome after being fished out of the ocean.

“At the time, it seemed everything was perfectly aligned,” Chandler said.

Victor remains on display at the aquarium, thanks to a local taxidermist.

There have been few structural changes at the aquarium, except for the 12 second-story apartments constructed in 1938 after the balcony over the pool was filled in. The apartments were rented until 1971.

The one-and two-room units had Murphy beds that could be pulled from the walls, and some apartments had bathtubs with an extra faucet for warm saltwater.

The only thing that occupants had to contend with was the barking of the seals at night.

“Someone asked me, ‘How can you sleep with all that noise?’” Kathe Baldwin said. “You get used to it. It’s when you don’t hear a sound that you start wondering.”

But what has changed at the aquarium is a push toward education. After Victor’s kidnapping, the aquarium joined the regional Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Chandler often is called to rescue stranded animals or to call in a forensics team to investigate the deaths of animals washed onto the beach.

An interpretive center also was created. Someone is always available to answer questions, show visitors what sea critters they can touch or provide a friendly lesson about the beach around them.

In the summer, the aquarium offers the “Discovery” program, where tables with microscopes are set out on the beach for people to examine tide pool creatures.

Despite its age, the aquarium still thrills a lot of visitors through its interactive exhibits.

“The ‘ooh and ahh’ effect is still there,” Chandler said.

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.