Awesome Foundation Grant Winner: MSUM Oceanarium: An Ocean of Possibilities

Written by: Brady Drake

Moorhead, Minnesota is one of the furthest places from the ocean. Yet, near-shore sea life thrives at the MSUM Oceanarium, promising fun, educational opportunities for members of the Fargo-Moorhead community.

Haven’t heard of it? You’re not alone. This gem, hidden in the basement of MSUM’s Langseth Hall, has operated quietly for eight years, offering tours and marine education opportunities to local K-12, YMCA, and homeschool groups. It has also been a permanent attraction on MSUM campus tours. During COVID, as student help and monetary opportunities receded, the Oceanarium almost went belly up. But now, with a new space and renewed support from the university, the Oceanarium is breaching the surface as a unique, interactive, investigative marine experience thousands of leagues from the nearest ocean.

Turning Tides

Surrounded by freshwater lakes and rivers, land-locked MSUM might not seem like the obvious choice for an oceanic sea life enclosure. In fact, today’s Oceanarium is the result of lots of hard work and a few lucky breaks from dedicated students and faculty.

Brain Wisenden, Biosciences professor at MSUM, and Phil Larson, Oceanarium Facility Coordinator and former MSUM Biosciences student, have been involved with the program since the beginning.

“In 2014, a small group of undergrads got together and wrote a proposal to build a small tide pool system,” Wisenden said. “It was fun, educational, and had a powerful effect no one foresaw. Students were drawn to it—to help run it, feed it, and, ultimately, expand it.”

But the student group soon found they had a lot to learn about building, maintaining, stocking and ultimately paying for this type of facility.

“I’m a fish guy,” Larson jokes. “I didn’t know anything about running a business.”

So, the team got creative and little by little, the Marine Ecology Lab found financial footing through grant writing, tours and educational outreach.

Then COVID hit. In 2020, MSUM, like other educational facilities in the area, essentially shutdown. Feeding and organism care fell to a core group of students and their main revenue stream was lost as tours were canceled indefinitely.

Wisenden, Larson and a dedicated skeleton crew managed to hold on through the worst of the pandemic. However, as the tides shifted and students returned to the classroom, they were left with a difficult decision. Rebuilding, and growing the facility, would require casting a larger net. From an inward-focused mission of providing a living laboratory for curricula at MSUM, the organization began to look outward and consider how they could contribute to the university’s mission to serve the Fargo-Moorhead community. To do that they rebranded the facility as the Oceanarium. They also needed money. This came in the form of a $25,000 “Shark Tank” award from the MN System Office Innovation Education grant program to pay for renovations and new exhibits.

Surging Forward

On World Ocean Day, June 8, the Oceanarium officially reopened with a renewed commitment to educational outreach and helping support oceanic literacy in our area. In addition to welcoming the public to their renovated facility, the Oceanarium also received money from local organizations. They were awarded $1,000 from the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation to help pay for salt for the saltwater tanks, and the Red River Zoo donated $1,250 from their ticket sales that day to help launch the Oceanarium.

“We might be hundreds of miles from the ocean,” Wisenden said, “but the choices we make here impact the ocean and vice versa.” From weather patterns to ecosystems, all of Earth’s water systems are tied together and even students in the Midwest need to understand their impact on the larger world. To this end, the Oceanarium held its first session of Junior Aquarist Camp for Kids (JACK), a multi-day experience designed by MSUM students to teach ocean literacy and provide a unique learning opportunity for local kids.

Taking the Plunge

The staff and students behind the MSUM Oceanarium are diving in to provide a valuable marine resource to our community.

“The nearest aquarium is in Sioux Falls or the Cities,” Larson said. “We’re offering the chance to get up close and touch some of these organisms right here in your backyard!”

Currently, the facility is home to over 150 organisms spanning seven ecosystems. The fan favorites are the horseshoe crabs, but the new jellyfish exhibit is offering some stiff competition. Later this year, staff will add a 600-gallon reef tank and are already setting up a habitat for an eel.

The Oceanarium continues to work with local K-12 educational groups in the region and is partnering with the MSUM Planetarium to offer a “sea to sky” field trip experience. And while the site currently doesn’t have standing open hours, Fargo-Moorhead residents are encouraged to reach out to schedule a tour at Tours require a minimum of 12 people with a $5 per person charge. Private tours are available for smaller groups with a $60 charge.

You can also learn more about Oceanarium events on their socials:

Instagram: @msumoceanarium
Facebook: /MSUMOceanarium

The Cass-Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a nonprofit. Applications can be made at en/chapters/cassclay

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.