Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre opens its doors on Cow Bay's ecology

"You can see the little barnacles opening their mouths!" exclaimed Louise Dwyer, peering into a gurgling tank of sea critters at the new Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre opening set Saturday at 1 p.m.

"And if we frighten that sea cumber, it would lose all its innards."

But the Cowichan Land Trust hasn't lost sight of bringing Cowichan Bay's sensitive marine ecology indoors to educate folks about the entire estuary's natural world.

The the west-facing, $350,000 cedar centre — build in Hecate Park by Macdonald & Lawrence timberframers — is crawling with hands- and eyes-on displays.

Those also include an interactive computer dsiplay of the bay, a map of the estuary's ecology — reaching to Cowichan Lake— video clips from bay experts and elders, plus microscopes for viewing the unseen marine world.

That salty, invisible world is familiar to marine biologist Bill Austin who helmed the bay's marine ecology station for years before it shifted to Sidney.

"The estuary centre's something of a diff direction than the ecology station," he said from the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, "because it looks at the estuary as a whole.

"I'm really happy it's opening because I felt guilty because when I left and took the marine station with me."

Austin, who'll attend Saturday's opening, said visitors can expect lots of eco-info.

"Looking at the small things is important because that's a whole world you don't usually see.

"If you care for something, and want to understand it, you have to at least experience it."

Jane Kilthei of the land trust, agreed.

"We're focused on where the Koksilah and Cowichan rivers come together in the bay.

"Estuaries are are quite unique ecosystems because they're continually shifting fresh and salt water, and the creatures there are uniquely adapted to this place."

Those sea and shore critters span salmon, eelgrass, seals, whales, herons, and a myriad more.

Many can be seen on the centre's giant TV screen scanning the bay.

Some can also be seen atop the centre's cedar viewing platform, along a green-shores pathway dotted with native species of shrubbery.

The project's all part of reclaiming the bay's nature from industrial use.

That metamorphosis was taxpayer funded by B.C.'s Island Coastal Economic Trust, and Ottawa's West Coast Community Adjustment program, plus money and labour raised by Cowichanians.

The land trust is now raising dough for centre operations, school programs and science camps.

"How can you fault something that's for the enjoyment of everyone?" asked land trust member Rod Carswell.

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