Alison Barratt is well into the first year of her tenure as executive director of the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, bringing her passion for the ocean to Sidney from Monterey, California.
Barratt was named executive director back in March and started the job on March 29. She replaced former executive director Angus Matthews, who was also one of the founders of the aquarium of the Salish Sea. Barratt has been working in marine conservation since 2000 and her last position before coming to Sidney was an interpreter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium where she trained their volunteer guides.
“I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and the ocean,” she said, noting she especially loves Orca, dolphins and the California Sea Otter.
In the mid-1990s, Barratt said she was traveling in California and fell in love with the wildlife there. she started by volunteering at the aquarium in Monterey Bay as a researcher in its sea otter conservation program, but said she didn’t just focus on that.
“I thought that at that time I was going to go back to school to be a scientist. But I wanted to be able to reach people in their own language.”
So, she became an aquarium interpreter. Her career soon took her back to her native United Kingdom to work for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. She held a position with a focus on sea birds, notably the albatross. She also worked for Sea Web, a seafood choices program that educated restaurants on ocean life, its supply chain and sustainable choices for the commercial side.
“It was an exciting time in the U.K. The environmental side of business was saying they wanted to make changes in what food they were providing. It was the start of a food movement in which people started to think about where their food was coming from.”
Barratt eventually found her way back to the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a communications director of the organization’s ocean policy. She used her background in sustainable seafood choices to work with businesses in North America and to help educate the public on similar issues.
Barratt said she came to Sidney a few years ago on a business trip and connected at that time with Matthews through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She had the chance then to see what the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre was all about.
“I was very impressed with the staff and the quality of the exhibits,” she said. “It was a place where I thought I’d like to live and work.”
So, after six years in California, when the executive director’s job in Sidney came up, she said she threw her hat into the ring.
Five months in, Barratt is facing new challenges at the SODC, including changing its business model to increase its revenue from grants and donations and try to maintain funding from the Town of Sidney. she also wants to ensure the aquarium remains a valuable member of the community.
“We offer a world-class experience,” she said of the Centre. “It’s also fun and educational. This is at the heart of what we do.”
The Centre is a public, non-profit organization, a society run by a board. Education is a big part of what they do, Barratt said, as well as offering a unique visitor experience.
“It is an attraction, yes,” she continued. “So, it has to be a quality one. If people learn something along the way, then so much the better.”
Barratt said she hopes to play a role in ensuring the aquarium is in Sidney for the long haul — helping ensure they can feed the fish and ensure a great experience for their visitors — which will have topped 500,000 in this, the SODC’s fifth year of operation.
Learn more about the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre at www.oceandiscovery.ca. The aquarium is located at 9811 Seaport Place in Sidney.