By Rachel Thomson The Daily World
ABERDEEN — Marc Myrsell runs his finger along a large wall of glass. Three yellow-green, flat fish seem to awaken from a slumber. One of the beady-eyed, scaly creatures swims after his hand.
“Flounder are almost like kittens,” Myrsell said. “They know when it’s feeding time. They know who you are and they’re falling all over themselves.”
Myrsell and his family have been feeding fish and scrubbing empty tanks since last June. The Myrsells, who live in Vancouver, Wash., and operate a land surveying company, purchased the Westport Aquarium last summer and have been working to restore it.
The aquarium near the docks has long been a popular stop for tourists and school kids on field trips, but it had been closed in recent years. Myrsell decided to purchase the facility and restore it to the community fixture it once was.
“The aquarium’s been a Harbor feature for the whole area, and we want to make it a community place,” he said.
The Myrsells first opened the doors during the 2009 Rusty Scupper’s Pirate Daze festival. They said their original intent was to finish most of the renovations and then hold an official opening, but people kept stopping by. So they decided to open it on a part-time basis. The Myrsells haven’t announced when the aquarium will be open full-time, but hope it will be later this year.
The aquarium first opened in Westport during the 1950s, and shared the property with Granny Hazel’s Candy &Gift Shop, which is now down the street. Over the years, ownership changed hands repeatedly. Once it was owned by a local family for more than two decades; then it was run by three partners from the Seaside, Ore. aquarium, Myrsell said.
During the aquarium’s heyday, visitors drove from miles around to get a gander of the various fish and marine critters. It had creatures like starfish and sea urchins, but what brought in the biggest crowds was the seal exhibit. At one time, the exhibit had five harbor seals and two sea lions that people could watch and feed.
According to Myrsell, the last people to own the aquarium did so for about six or seven years. He said health problems prevented the owners from keeping up the maintenance, so they gave up the aquarium. It sat vacant until the Myrsells took over.
For the past six months, Myrsell, along with his wife, Kathryn and three children, have spent every weekend cleaning the 3,000 square-foot facility, resurfacing tanks and restoring different parts of the building. The family stays above the aquarium in an upstairs apartment during its visits.
During the week, family members drop by to help. Kathryn has also begun volunteering at the Seattle aquarium to learn about maintenance and how to care for the animals.
One of the biggest jobs Myrsell had was cleaning out the eight-foot by 12-foot sand filter.
“The stuff looked like it hadn’t been changed in 20 years,” he said. Everyone helped scoop out the mud. Then came the hard part: Hauling in 8,000 pounds of gravel.
“I was in bed for about two days after that,” Myrsell said with a chuckle.
Evidence of their labor is beginning to show. There’s a “touch tank” with several star fish. The tank itself is colorful — the Myrsells recently invited visitors to paint nautical-themed ceramic tiles, which now cover the tank sides.
Besides the flounder and starfish, there are also sea urchins and anemones for visitors to see.
Myrsell said he’s working on the aquarium’s first exhibit. The theme will be “glass fish.” Officials at the Seaside Aquarium have agreed to give them some translucent species of fish. The Myrsells have also commissioned local artists to create glass fish to display around the exhibit.
Myrsell said there’s still a lot of work ahead of him, and he often stays up past 2 a.m. tinkering with renovations. But it’s always a pleasurable experience.
“How terrible is it living at the beach, working on an aquarium? It’s the best job in the world.”