When explorer Ferdinand Magellan reached the South Pacific in 1520, he marveled at how still the waters were and named it Mar Pacifico, which means “peaceful sea” in his native Portuguese.

That calm surface rarely hints at the multitudes below. Extending over 160 million square kilometers, the Pacific Ocean is the world’s largest body of water and accounts for nearly one-third of the Earth’s surface. Much of it remains unexplored; there’s always something new to learn, especially since healthy aquatic ecosystems are vital to the health of our planet.

For nearly two decades, the Vancouver Aquarium’s annual Murray A. Newman Awards have recognized excellence in aquatic research and conservation in British Columbia. The awards are a tribute to Dr. Newman, former Aquarium director who helped open the Aquarium’s doors in June 1956.

The awards recognize recent works or an entire career of contributions. For 2014 the recipients are Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, for Significant Achievement in Aquatic Research and Conservation and Dr. Robert Devlin for Significant Achievement in Aquatic Research.

Dr. Tunnicliffe, currently the Canada Research Chair in Deep Ocean Research, was among the first to explore the ocean from B.C.’s coast, and is attributed with the discovery of more than 75 new species. Dr. Tunnicliffe’s research helped deepen the understanding of how aquatic animals respond to stressful events such as the expansion of our population, oil and gas developments, shipping, fishing, port construction, aquaculture, and coastal logging. These changes, among other human developments, are affecting coastal environments in ways that are not fully understood.

By improving upon current methods in molecular biology, Dr. Devlin was able to create salmon with accelerated growth patterns for non-commercial use. The salmon help researchers estimate the risks of introducing genetically-engineered animals to natural ecosystems, and the information collected serves as core data for national and global regulatory agencies.

To understand and ensure the good health of B.C.’s coastal waters is to help provide a more sustainable ecosystem for future generations. The works of Dr. Devlin and Dr. Tunnicliffe highlight the issues surrounding aquatic ecosystems. They will be honoured at Vancouver Aquarium’s Murray A. Newman Awards on Tuesday, February 18 at 6 p.m. The evening begins with a cocktail reception followed by a three-course plated dinner in Canada’s underwater Arctic gallery. Tickets are $95 each and available here.

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