Calling all budding marine scientists: Dal’s Aquatron research pool to hold open house

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Before Transformers, there was the Aquatron — Dalhousie University’s dynamic and evolving superhero of a marine research centre.

If it swims, floats or sinks, it may have been tested inside the Aquatron’s laboratories and tanks since it opened 50 years ago.

The golden anniversary is being marked this weekend with an open house.

In past years, the centrepiece 680,000-litre pool tank has been transformed to replicate everything from the Great Barrier Reef off Australia — complete with kelp, sea urchins and lobsters — to Arctic conditions suitable for Greenland sharks.

Striped bass, squid, seals — and robots — have also done time in the 15-metre-wide and four-metre-deep pool.

“It’s a shorter list of what we haven’t done,” said manager John Batt.

Advanced ocean monitoring on display

On Saturday afternoon, Dalhousie will hold a family-friendly community day to give the public a chance to see and feel the research underway at the facility — from the latest in high-tech ocean monitoring to touch tanks for marine scientists-in-waiting.

University and government researchers have been invited to explain their work, including how sensors track fish in the open ocean, and the impacts of a changing climate on marine plants like eelgrass, as well as kelp and shellfish.

There will be tours and displays of gliders and bottom-crawling robots.

“We said, ‘Why don’t you guys come out? We’ll set up tables. Bring your research so people can come in and they can touch it and they can see it, and they can talk to the [graduate] students about it,’” said Batt.

Rescuing a Canadian species on the brink of extinction

Depending on the crowds, there is a chance to view another facet of the Aquatron: its role as a Noah’s ark for Atlantic whitefish, the salmon relative on the brink of extinction.

The remaining wild population on the planet survives only in three lakes behind the town of Bridgewater, N.S.

Whitefish swim in a pool
Atlantic whitefish, a salmon relative on the brink of extinction, are grown to spawning age in the laboratory for later reintroduction to lakes near Bridgewater, N.S. (Robert Short/CBC)

The fish is so endangered, the young are now whisked to the Aquatron for safety whenever found and grown to spawning age for later reintroduction.

There are whitefish in around 20 tanks.

“We’re not seeing many in the wild. We’ve got the whole species here in the lab, and we do feel a lot of pressure for that. If there’s a big disaster, we could lose it — and with that, we could lose the species. So we have them in different parts of the lab. We have them on different systems. They’re all alarmed,” said Batt.

“There’s the odd night I wake up going, oh the whitefish.”

Saving salmon in the Cape Breton Highlands

Tanks also hold Atlantic salmon removed as parr from the Clyburn River in Cape Breton Highlands National Park. They are grown out to sexual maturity and returned to the river in the hopes they will breed and replenish the stock. Last October, 120 were released, including 30 carrying acoustic tags.

“We’re now tracking those fish, how they move around the river, where they go to give Parks [Canada] more information to help preserve the species,” said Batt.

How to get in

The Aquatron is located on the Dalhousie campus. The public is advised to use the Steele Ocean Sciences building on Oxford Street to access the facility. The open house is from 1 to 4 p.m. local time on Saturday, May 11.

WATCH | A sneak peek of the Aquatron:

A rare glimpse at a leading Canadian ocean research facility

Ocean gliders and sensors that track fish around the world will be on display at Dalhousie University this weekend to mark a very special anniversary. Paul Withers has the story.

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