It's a place where kids young and old can learn about the vast world under the waves. And it has given new purpose to a once bustling space in the Petty Harbour Fishermen's Co-op plant that went quiet after the moratorium on commercial cod fishing in 1992.
There are now 30 tanks showcasing hermit crabs, bearded sea ravens, Atlantic cod, chunky lump fish and sea stars — not star fish, stressed Melanie Knight, aquarium founder and executive director.
"We're trying to change the name," she explained as children gathered around a touch tank where they could get to know the intricate species. Sea stars aren't fish and they don't swim like fish, Knight said.
Other fun facts: cod fish have three dorsal fins and distinctive white side stripes; sea ravens have beards that help them blend into seaweed; and it's best to leave shells on the beach because hermit crabs are often looking for their next house.
The aquarium's ultimate highlights include small jellyfish that glow like rainbows when light catches their fine hairs or cilia, a rare blue lobster, and an even more elusive all-white snow crab named Casper.
Steve Miller, one of seven staff, described how seasoned fishermen have dropped by to marvel at the ghostly creature recently found in Petty Harbour, about 20 kilometres south of St. John's.
"They've been fishing crab for 20 to 30 years and have never seen a white crab. And they're hauling in hundreds of thousands of pounds a year."
Knight, 28, is originally from landlocked Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. She studied biology at Memorial University of Newfoundland and lived for several years on Canada's West Coast. She said her time spent at the small Ucluelet Aquarium on Vancouver Island in B.C. inspired plans for the new Petty Harbour site.
Its doors opened last month with help from $100,000 in funding from corporate sponsor Hebron, provincial backing worth $25,900 and a long list of individual donors, Knight said. The seasonal aquarium features local sea life gathered by volunteer divers that will be released back into the North Atlantic, pending veterinary clearance, in October.
Visitors have so far come from across Canada and from as far away as New Orleans and Ireland, Knight said.
"The reaction has been incredibly humbling and phenomenal. We've had amazing crowds come through the door."
Knight said a prime goal is to ignite curiosity about the sea in guests of all ages.
"They'll start to care more and eventually they'll start to want to conserve and to help the oceans, and make changes to their behaviour ... to help make sure that the oceans are healthy and to protect them."
For Reg Best, born and bred in Petty Harbour and a small boat fisherman for 45 years, it does his heart good to see that part of the fish plant hopping once more. He recalled how, just before the 1992 cod moratorium was announced, new filleting machines were installed in the room now filled with visitors and exhibits.
Crab has helped sustain the local fishery but there's still lots of potential for the aquarium to grow, Best said. It's also a vital bit of history for generations who have never known cod fishing as it was.
"I have four grandchildren and they love it," Best said. "They can't get over it. When they come here it's a job to get them clear of it."