With all the native greenery lining its outdoor walkways, springtime visitors to the Oregon Coast Aquarium may not realize they’re walking on the re-imagined site of a former lumber mill. But it’s true—archival images of the property show all the trappings of a thriving logging industry, but scant few living trees. This transformation owes itself to two major factors: coastal Oregon’s ample rainfall, which encourages prodigious regrowth; and the Aquarium groundskeeping staff, who from the Aquarium’s very beginning imagined a naturescape lush with native species.
Preeminent in the planning and execution of this concept was Bob Llewellyn, the Aquarium’s first head groundskeeper. He envisioned the grounds as being an interpretive journey of sorts: Upon arrival, visitors would follow the figurative path of rainwater as it made its way from the Coast Range down to the Pacific Ocean.
“Bob’s vision was basically this: Visitors would get out of their cars and leave the stress of their daily lives behind as they entered the Aquarium,” said Anita Albrecht, the current Head Groundskeeper. The overall effect of exploring the Aquarium grounds would be akin to walking a labyrinth, calming and transportive.
While the fluid grace of this “journey”—as Albrecht puts it—has become less evident as the Aquarium has grown and matured, it remains the founding principle of the landscaping team, she said.
More than 100 different plant species are found on the 30-acre property, many of them labeled with placards. In the year prior to the Aquarium’s 1992 opening, Llewellyn and his groundskeepers planted almost everything visitors see today —Albrecht estimates that only a handful of the trees and shrubs on-site are relicts of the lumber mill days. Smaller species have been added over the years, but the greenery reflects, by and large, the age of the Aquarium itself. The majority of this flora is native to the Oregon coast, but the occasional exotic does crop up.
“Bob [Llewellyn] was a live-and-let-live kind of guy; he’d leave some of the originally planted shrubs even if they were non-native, because he liked them,” said Albrecht. “Me, I’m a little more ruthless. We’ll pull weeds if we need to. If we’re going to plant something new, we’ll choose something native to this area.”
This coastal forest, cultivated though it may be, still attracts hordes of native pollinators including bumblebees, rufous and Anna’s hummingbirds, butterflies, beetles, ants and moths. Hence the grounds, formerly barren and now 24 years into its reincarnation, are certified as Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation.
The Aquarium’s proximity to Yaquina Bay affords visitors an up-close look at one of Oregon’s largest estuaries—rich ecosystems that occur wherever rivers meet the sea. Along the Estuary Trail, three viewing platforms look out onto the bay. Salt-tolerant vegetation crowds the banks, which give way at low tide to acres of mud flats. These flats support eelgrass beds, which in turn provide refuge to larval fishes, crabs, and a slew of other invertebrates. The mud itself is nutrient-rich and full of mollusks and crustaceans, a veritable buffet for shorebirds, raccoons, herons, kingfishers and more.
Come to the Aquarium for its stunning galleries, exhibits and presentations, but plan to linger a bit and wander its beautiful grounds, currently blooming with spring wildflowers. Stop and smell the native wild rose, the red-flowering currant, the vibrant Oregon grape, our state flower. See if you can spot a rough-skinned newt coming up for air in the lily-padded pond, ringed with marsh grass and sedge. And because many of these species are labeled, you might take home some plant-identification skills, too!