Undersea Gardens closing after 50 years in Victoria area

Inner Harbour aquarium outdated, says Oak Bay Marine Group; eight employees affected

Pacific Undersea Gardens, first built in Oak  Bay and later moved to Victoria’s Inner Harbour, is now closed after 50 years of operations.

“Quite frankly, it’s dated and it would require significant investment to bring it up to just a basic standard that Oak Bay [Marine Group] would be proud of and that the city of Victoria would be proud of,” said Susan Barcham, spokeswoman for the attraction’s owner.

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Every year, about 83,000 people have been stepping onto the floating exhibit and going 15 feet below the ocean surface for a close-up look at sea life, she said Wednesday.

But the 150-foot-long vessel is getting old. Upkeep is expensive.

Visitors’ tastes have changed since Undersea Gardens was created. Smaller aquariums such as Undersea Gardens are being replaced by much larger attractions offering more hands-on experiences, and are typically owned by big companies or non-profits, Barcham said.

Building a bigger facility is not the answer, she said. It would not be the right fit for the Inner Harbour or allowed under the existing lease.

Oak Bay Marine Group founder Bob Wright, who died in April, had hired an architect to draw up a contemporary new design for Undersea Gardens.

It was never built.

Undersea Gardens “provided unique insight and education to children and the public about our undersea world. It has been a great journey, but it is time to move on,” Barcham said.

The closing marks the loss of another tourist attraction in the capital region. Other closings recent years include the tropical exhibit in Crystal Garden on Douglas Street and the Royal London Wax Museum.

Undersea Gardens was started in 1963 at the Oak Bay Marina by the late Charlie White, a businessman, fishing expert, inventor and filmmaker. It became a fixture in the city’s harbour in 1969, opening in June of that year as it counted down to its one millionth visitor.

Undersea Gardens has been home to about 5,000 sea creatures. They include Armstrong, the giant Pacific octopus and star of a dive show, a wolf eel, plus about 1,000 salmon, crabs, and sea stars.

Undersea Gardens’ eight employees were told Wednesday about the decision to close. Efforts will be made to place them within the Oak Bay Marine Group and a career counsellor is also being provided, Barcham said.

Oak Bay Marine Group will work with Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientists and a veterinarian to release and relocate its collection.

A tender will be issued to decommission the vessel, Barcham said.

Oak Bay Marine Group is run by a trust managing its resorts, fishing lodges, and attractions, including Oak Bay Marina and Pedder Bay RV Resort and Marina.

Rick Crosby, CEO of the Provincial Capital Commission, which owns the water lease where Undersea Gardens is located, said he is willing to be flexible if the company wants to negotiate an early end to its lease. Its current five-year term runs until October 2017.

The company could also assign the lease to another party, subject to commission approval. The lease had been renewed in 2007 with four five-year terms.


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