Have you ever wondered what lives in the ocean nearby? Do you want to see the kinds of fish, crabs and other creatures that thrive near Coos County? Believe it or not, that can all be done at the Charleston Marine Life Center.

After being closed for much of the last two years, the Marine Life Center is back open, at least on Fridays and Saturdays.

"We missed having people," said Trish Mace, director of the Charleston Marine Life Center. "Everybody here really enjoys interacting with the public and sharing areas which excite them."

The Marine Life Center is a portion of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology with the University of Oregon. Mace explained that when the Institute of Marine Biology opened, it received grant funding for years to take educational programs to schools in the region. When the grant funding dried up, the decision was made to build the Charleston Marine Life Center to continue the work of educating school children and the public.

"Historically, we've been very involved with community education in a variety of ways," Mace explained.

The Marine Life Center was the dream of Dr. Craig Young, who was determined to keep the educational aspect of the Institute of Marine Biology alive when the grant funding ended.

"He went to work and didn't give up and worked for a number of years with the university and the community," Mace said. "There was a lot of support from the community."

That support helped the Marine Life Center open in 2016, and its doors remained open four days a week until early in 2020, when COVID changed the world.

The Marine Life Center briefly opened last fall before the Delta variant forced it to close again, but when conditions approved in early winter, it opened again. Mace said she is hopeful the facility can remain open despite the Omicron surge.

"We're open to locals, we're open to tourists, but we're also open to regional schools, not just Coos Bay, North Bend, Bandon and Coquille," Mace said.

Even during the pandemic, the Marine Life Center offered virtual programming to schools, a move Mace said was very successful.

So what's inside the facility? A vast array of sea animals that can be seen, touched and explored to give guests an idea of what is living nearby.

Several touch tanks allow guests to see and feel a few animals such as starfish, sea cucumbers and a variety of anemones. Other tanks having living fish, skates, crabs and dozens of varieties of creatures that live in the deep.

When you walk in the front door, look up and you will see the bones of two whales and a sea turtle that washed ashore nearby.

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A skeleton of a whale that washed ashore in Coos County can be seen at the Charleston Marine Life Center.

"All of our animals are collected locally," Mace said. "Some of them are by us or students, and we also have some fishermen who are on our permit."

At the Marine Life Center, different tanks showcase what might be seen in different locations nearby. The tanks show life eel grass and move to show different creatures as the water gets deeper.

While a big part of the center's mission is to educate local elementary students, by showcasing local creatures and offering a variety of hands-on opportunities inside, it also works to help marine biology students at the University of Oregon.

Every student going through the marine biology program must spend time in Charleston, and they do experiments and help feed the creatures at the Marine Life Center.

While education is a primary component, for many seeing, touching and experiencing life in the deep is just a fun experience, one that draws locals again and again.

The Charleston Marine Life Center is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Mace said she would like to open more days, but she would need additional volunteers first.

"We very much rely on and benefit from the community," Mace said.

To see what lives underwater in the ocean nearby, plan a trip to Charleston and visit the Marine Life Center, while it remains open.

"Everything you see in these tanks was found here locally," Mace said.

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