June 24, 2015's Weekly Slap:

“Beach Slapped” is what it is because from the moment I first came to the Oregon Coast, most every moment I lived here, and even my last hours here, it was always about the beach. That wasn’t always true of my life, and perhaps that’s been my problem.

Growing up in Colorado, I was a long way from the beach. I don’t care what anyone says, lounging next to a giant lake/ civic water supply is not the beach.

BartonGroverHowe.com:Where to keep up with humor writer Barton Grover Howe. Here, you'll find all of his Beach Slapped columns from The News-Times in Lincoln County, Oregon, excerpts from his latest books and the occasional random musing that would get him fired if he published it in a family newspaper.
Swimming, sinking and swimming along
- August, 2006
Even though the history of aquariums in Lincoln County is barely 75 years old, its beginnings are as murky as a foggy morning. Or a seal tank with a busted filter. We are talking about aquariums.

According to the sign on the old Depoe Bay Aquarium, the central coast’s first underwater zoo opened its doors in 1927. But according to newspapers published later, it didn’t actually open until 1930. According to people inside the White House it’s all the media’s fault.

Newspapers from the period, however, confirm that it was in 1930 that H.L. Collins first saw a captured octopus wrapped around a car bumper in Depoe Bay. Immediately he knew people would pay to see one in a tank. Early attendance was mixed; very few people wanted to see a car bumper in a tank. After putting actual animals in the aquarium, however, things went quite well.

The next aquarium opened in 1947, the DeLake Aquarium, which offered, “Pacific Wonders Alive,” having clearly learned from Collins’ dead bumper experiment. Little is known about this aquarium, save that it went out of business within 10 years and it’s former location just south of the D River is now considered a native fish burial ground. Small blonde children should not watch TV there.

The next aquarium to open in Lincoln County was the aquarium at the OSU Marine Science Laboratory. Even before opening it was wrapped in controversy.

Both South Beach and Newport battled over who would provide the water to what was to be the Pacific coast’s foremost salt-water research facility. Why no one at OSU figured out there was roughly 256 quadrillion gallons of salt water a few miles west, no one is quite sure. Whatever, by the 1965 opening it didn’t matter; the facility signed with Perrier, which tastes worst than salt water.

The last aquarium to open was Newport’s Oregon Coast Aquarium. Originally, the aquarium was conceived as a tropical paradise. City lawyers immediately saw a problem: people would leave the warm-water facility and try to actually swim in the local ocean and freeze to death.

So the plans were revamped and an aquarium with local flora and fauna was proposed. Instead of a tropical aquarium full of brightly colored fishes that could cause you exquisite pain with just one bite, OCA was to be full of brightly colored jellyfishes that could cause you exquisite pain with just one sting. It was a huge leap forward.

Construction began in 1990, and soon a fake environment began to rise from where once there was only a real one. Rocks were made using concrete and latex casts. Problems arose, however, when as the latex was peeled off the entire cast of Mission: Impossible 2 was found underneath. Nevertheless, OCA opened its doors in April 1992.

Like most aquariums, Lincoln County’s have defined themselves by the creatures they hold. Depoe Bay was known for its octopus and sea lions, which were often captured in interesting ways.

Finding and getting a wild sea creature has never been easy. Even today you cannot get one on e-Bay, unless of course it has an image of the Virgin Mary on it’s side. (You will still not get one; Golden Palace will buy it for $1 million.) In the 1930’s it would seem likely it was even more difficult, as no one had thought to invent Pay Pal yet.

They had not, however, invented the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, either, so just about anyone could go out and rustle themselves up a sea creature. In 1938, Mike Schroeder and his retriever Coony went out on Gleneden Beach and captured a sea lion barehanded, which they took the aquarium. This would be impossible today; everyone in Gleneden Beach has a tiny yip dog.

Aquarium owner Collins got into the game when he went up to Washington state where he would drag octopuses out of the water and put them in garbage cans for storage. Underwater, he would smoke them out of caves with blue stone and Slim Whitman music.

Interestingly, travel writers of the time encouraged people to go see the octopus in Depoe Bay by calling it, “hideous.” Indeed, much of Depoe Bay’s early marketing strategy seemed to revolve around telling people how horrible their attractions were.

In a 1972 brochure produced by the aquarium, they described their own wolf eel as, “an ugly creature, looking like some ribbon-like monster from out of the past. His color is an awful gray.” Modern marketers spent years studying this phenomenon, until William Hung appeared on American Idol. After that, they realized Americans would spend money on anything, no matter how horrible it was.

Down in Newport, at the government’s aquarium, they had the normal assortment of starfish, anemones and other animals that are fairly difficult to make into cute stuffed animals. To make this marketing gap worse, they eventually renamed the facility the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Aside from the fact that no Duck fans would by their stuff, it was impossible to fit “Oregon State University Marine Science Laboratory” on the teeny-weeny t-shirts teenagers started wearing above their navels.

Across the way at OCA there were all kinds of animals: sea lions, otters, and in later years a mysteriously pregnant turtle, in which “strong the The Force in that one is.” The facility even became known for one of the best shorebird breeding programs in the country when they welcomed puffin chicks, a rhinoceros auklet and even a freebird, when everyone on staff held up their lighters.

But by far their most noted resident was Keiko, star of the movie, “Free Willy.”. Today, people in Newport still refer to this period as, “The Keiko Years,” when the city and the aquarium were so crowded no one even noticed that Keiko was computer generated during all of his jumps.

These years were not without controversy, however. Squabbles erupted over his health and whether or not he should be returned to the wild. Many right-wing conservatives were angry that Keiko was taking jobs from American whales and had no plans to learn English. When it was all said and done, Keiko left the aquarium in 1998.

Keiko left behind a legacy of astounding attendance. People had come from around the world to see a creature they could see nowhere else and spend gobs of money. And they came from Canada - which has hundreds of the things – and spent even more gobs of money.

But when Keiko left, the people went with him, and within a matter of years OCA found itself in serious trouble. For one thing, the aquarium’s executive director had been running the facility using everything she learned in “Enron for Dummies.” By 2002, the facility was basically bankrupt, and the aquarium’s bond rating dropped below even that of George Lazenby in “Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

Part of the problem was attendance. It had gone from 1.3 million a year in the Keiko years to less than half-a-million. There were a variety of reasons for this, but the largest was that in the 1990’s, Canadians only counted as two-thirds of a person at current exchange rates.

The aquarium survived however, largely because of OCA’s dedicated employees and volunteers. There are two reasons they worked so hard:

1)    They are great people.

2)    Most of them had participated in the “Adopt an Animal” program, and discovered if the aquarium closed they would end up having to take a shark home and put it in their toilet.

The aquarium also ensured its future when it brought in a new leader, Dale Schmidt, from the Florida Aquarium. No one, it was reasoned, knew more about dealing with screwy number-counting than a resident of Florida. Indeed, Schmidt himself helped avert a constitutional crisis in 2000 when he prevented George Lazenby from becoming president. This, despite being nearly blinded by a hanging chad. (A type of starfish.)

The survival of OCA was not good news for everyone, however. Faced with the increasing competition and federal regulation, the Depoe Bay Aquarium closed. Its seal population was sent to Sea World in San Diego, making them the first living creatures to actually leave Lincoln County for California.

Up in Lincoln City, some people believe the population of the DeLake Aquarium hasn’t left at all. According to paranormal experts, if you stand 20 feet east of the D River Wayside and close your eyes tightly, you will see wild images and phantom creatures in the air because you have been run over by an RV.

At Hatfield they decided to refocus their efforts as an educational center. Today, kids from all over Oregon can come to the OSU center, write a report, and have it publicly eviscerated for political reasons before being nearly pulled from publication.

Over at OCA, their people have moved far beyond calling their animals “hideous” and “ugly,” leaving those marketing gimmicks for the Saturday movie on the Sci-Fi Channel. Having said that, many of their exhibits – such as “Fossils, Fins and Fangs” and “Claws!” – pay homage to these times. Nothing sells quite like an animal that can tear off your arms and legs.

Even Hatfield is moving into the future, In 2005 they signed a pact with OCA to collaborate on public research, education, outreach, and explaining why building a giant, toxic ship-breaking facility on Yaquina Bay is a bad thing. This was in addition to the two facilities’ joint Aquarium Science Program, the nation’s first. In just the few years it has existed, it has already placed graduates at aquariums all over the country where each is stunned to learn there is no Rogue Beer.

Hatfield is also updating its educational programs to satisfy today’s more media-savvy population. Interactive video-programs will allow kids to experiment with science before hijacking a lab truck. Even the Pacific Oysters and starfish will be getting special treatment. Center officials have hired screenplay writers from the Sci-Fi Channel and plan to have “Demon Oyster: Pearls of Pain,” in theaters by 2007.