1. Something's in the Water


There is a lot in the water, both good and bad. Discover how scientists assess ocean and freshwater health by testing local water samples, reviewing the water cycle, and re-imagining an ideal ocean habitat. Get a behind the scenes look into the work our aquarists put in to make sure our exhibits have the cleanest water out there!

From Aquablog

In the first JBC session of the year, we look into everything that scientists and aquarists do to research and protect our water! We'll start off with an exploration about all the factors that affect water health. We'll learn about the ways pollution is entering our watersheds, and then all use our scientific minds to think of ways to keep our watersheds healthy. After that, it's time to get our hands wet as we do the exact same water quality tests as our animal caretakers here at the aquarium! 

What did we do today? 

  • Learn all about the steps that go into ensuring water health at the Vancouver Aquarium. From temperature, water chemistry, and salinity. 
  • Test the water in our wetlabs and be a junior aquarist! 
  • Solve the mystery of the red tide
  • Learn how pollution and fertilizers can lead to dead zones around the world.
  • Went around the aquarium checking all the habitats to make sure the animals are getting the best water and the best care!

Things to ask your junior biologist 

1. What are some things that can cause water to be unhealthy? Things like too much or too little salt, differing temperatures, changes in water chemistry, and too many nutrients can change water health for the worst.

2. What are dead zones or red tides? Both are caused by an abnormal increase of plankton caused by nutrient overload. They can hurt lots of different animals including humans

3. What can you do about water health? Using less water and planting local plants go a long way. Using less fertilizers in the garden and making sure only waste water goes down storm drains.

Do you have a question for our JBC volunteers or Leo? Ask away on our Discussion Board

Let’s see what’s in the water!

There’s always something in the water. Whether we see little fish or water striders. There’s something to find and explore. But there’s something else that usually goes unseen.

 The quality of the water is an important factor to study. When the temperature, salinity, acidity, or nutrient load are in balance, things go well. But the issue comes when one these critical factors gets affected by our actions. These issues can have disastrous consequences for all forms of life, both in the water and on land.

Healthy water, healthy animals

Aquarium Water

A common question at the Aquarium is where we get our water. We get our water from two sources. The freshwater in our exhibits like the Amazon and Frogs Forever gallery come from the city! To get it ready for display, we of course have to run the water through many filters to get rid of stuff like chlorine and fluoride which is good for humans, but bad for animals. We run the water through sand filters and carbon filters to get rid of them!

The saltwater is actually from Vancouver Harbour! It’s pumped in and then we have to do a lot more filtering to clean it up. We run sea water through multiple sand filters, screen filters, and foam filters to prepare it all. Sea water could contain a lot of little animals, so we have to be careful with it. All the steps ensures that the water is clean enough to put into the habitats!

Same water as these orcas are swimming through!
From Daily Hive

But it’s not guaranteed! Sometimes we get stowaways who make it through all our filters! Nudibranchs, sea anemones, and sea stars start out life as eggs and hatch into microscopic larvae. We have had a few microscopic animals get by our filters and taken up residence in our wet labs!

Water what? Water sheds! 

Watersheds are areas where water drains and collects. All around us, the snow and rain falls and collects into streams and then eventually larger reservoirs or lakes. These provide vast amounts of habitat for animals and plants, as well as providing us with drinking water! The lower mainland is situated on the Fraser watershed, which supports two thirds of BC's population! 

The Fraser not only provides us with drinking water, but the life that it sustains is amazing. Coho salmon are famous in BC and rely on the Fraser watershed. However, there are threats to the Fraser's health. One of the threats to it is pollution. Pollution from industry and cities are huge contributers. But there are things we can do about it. One major source of pollution is road salt! The salt will get into the water system from our roads and driveways. Look to salt alternatives to do your part!

Heat, salt, acid, and nutrients.

A lot goes into making sure the water around us is healthy. It’s a mix and balance of many different factors, but some of the major ones are heat, salt, acid, and nutrients. When they are out of balance, there can be major consequences, such as huge algal blooms which can lead to dead zones. To counter this, our aquarists are constantly monitoring our water making sure it's within the accepted range! 

While it’s nice for us to be able to make water hotter when we need. Most animals can only tolerate a small range of temperatures. When things like increased global temperatures or increased sun light raise temperatures. It can negatively affect the ecological balance and cause certain plants to grow out of control.


The salt level in both freshwater and saltwater are important for things to move forward normally. However, as human impacts increase, changing salinity levels may make certain habitats uninhabitable. 

Salt water has a delicate pH.  pH is an indicator of how acidic or how basic something is. The pH of the oceans is delicately balanced. However, the increased carbon in the atmosphere is being absorbed into the water and acidifying the oceans. This has led to different growths of certain microscopic life, and more notably, the melting of the coral reefs.

All living things need nutrients, so more should be good right? Not if there is too much because they lead to dead zones forming. All over the world, run off from large scale farms enters the rivers and builds up on its way to the oceans. Once there, the nutrients are free game for phytoplankton. The increased nutrient leads to an explosion of plant like plankton. The problem occurs when they die. When bacteria break down the dead uneaten plankton, they rapidly use up oxygen in the water. This leaves nothing left for animals like shrimp and fish, causing entire food webs to collapse.

Red Tide in Coal Harbour
From Reddit

What are people doing about water health?

It’s true that the state of our oceans is looking bleak. But that’s not stopping people from taking action in their own ways. Scientists and divers around the world are working together to gather samples of oceans and lake bottoms to get further data. We can’t fix a problem that we don’t know about!


There are youths out in our Ocean Bridge program that are using their programming knowledge and sending out drones and arduinos into hard to reach river systems to survey river health all across Canada. The more we know, the more we can hopefully fix! 

In New York, there is a citizen science group called the Billion Oyster Project. They work around New York setting up oyster reefs and seeding the waters with baby oysters. This is because oysters are fantastic filter feeders that can filter out lots of pollution and plankton from the water. Their goal is to have enough filter feeders in the water to clean it up.

What can I do?

Not everyone is a diver, or a programmer, or has a billion baby oysters lying around their homes. But we can do our part to help out. Simple things like not flushing garbage down the toilet is a great first step that relieves pressure on waste treatment plants. Advocating to friends and family to stop putting pollutants into storm drains as well goes a long way to keep our water systems clean.

Minimizing fertilizer use in your garden and planting local species is another great way to help out our water systems! Local plants are adapted for BC climates, and can generally get by with using less water than grass lawns! Lowering your water use, and retaining more water in the soil, preventing nutrients from leaching out into the water system.

Even design and creative thinking helps! Using smart yard design, smart watering strategies and being proactive about drought can all help us protect drinking water and be smarter for the environment.

There really are a lot of little things that can make a big impact. If we all do something small, great things can happen, so spread the message!


    1.  Find out what watershed your water comes from and what rivers it connects to here 
    2.  Find out what else you and your junior biologist can do to keep water healthy here 
    3.  Join a local shoreline cleanup if you get the chance! Find one in your area here!

    Learning Objectives

    1. Water health is a balancing act between many different factors
    2. Changes in water health can have vast consequences on all forms of life
    3. Our actions and choices affect the environment around us
    4. Small positive decisions can add up to big positive change

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