Early in 1969, a float plane meandered its way over the convoluted bays of western Vancouver Island’s coast as eager eyes peered from the window. Seaweed scientist Louis Druehl was one of those aboard. He was heading a search committee tasked with choosing the best spot to build a Canadian west coast marine science station for research and education. The search committee had visited multiple sites to investigate their suitability: Sooke Harbour, Pedder Bay, Port Renfrew, Tofino, and Ucluelet. “Every place was beautiful,” says Druehl. In the end though, Bamfield won their hearts and minds.
Dr. George Mackie, 2004
George Mackie, a marine invertebrate zoologist and neurobiologist at the University of Victoria, recalls seeing from the air what looked like wild horses running on the beach near Tofino.
In searching for an ideal spot, these passengers had made multiple trips by air and along rough roads to scope out possible sites at Sooke Harbour, Pedder Bay, Port Renfrew, Tofino and Ucluelet. They had also considered a station based on campus at the University of Victoria.
It was the late 1960s, and this search committee, backed by Canada’s National Research Council, had been tasked with scouring the coast for a spot to build a future marine scientific hub for researchers and students.
“We travelled extensively,” says invertebrate zoologist Arthur Fontaine, then a University of Victoria search committee member. “It was really quite adventuresome,” he says.
As they searched the outer coastline of the rugged Pacific, “Every place was beautiful,” says search committee member Louis Druehl of Simon Fraser University. Bamfield, the tiny hamlet where the plane was preparing to land, was a late addition to the list of contenders.
They had arrived to see a site perched on a hill with a westerly overlook across a sheltered inlet where a telegraph cable station had been abandoned five years earlier.
Dr. Arthur Fontaine, 1958
After touching down on rippling waters at the mouth of Grappler Inlet, the aircraft taxied over to a house. Resident Peter Janitis, a former employee of the cable station, greeted the passengers. Disembarking into the steady rain, Druehl remembers asking him, “Does it rain much here?”
“Nope,” was the reply. “Just like this: All the time.”
Louis Druehl, a kelp biologist, was head of the site search committee envisioning a future marine research and teaching station shared by five universities: the University of Calgary, University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, University of British Columbia, and the University of Victoria.
One of the search committee’s early meetings took place in a stateroom on a BC ferry, recalls Druehl, made challenging because en route, the ship encountered heavy fog. “Our stateroom was right under the fog horn,” he says. On that noisy preliminary journey, they compiled a list of what might make an ideal place, taking biology and logistics into account.
Dr. Louis Druehl, 1969
Following floatplane touch down, they taxied around, plane following small boat with Janitis as tour guide.
“We had crabs running around on the deck outside,” recalls Druehl, and a lunch of smoked salmon. “It was a no-brainer,” he says. Bamfield, he was convinced, was the place.
Fontaine recalls another reconnaissance trip on which the Western Universities Boards of Governors flying by chartered float plane to Bamfield for a site visit.
Peering down en route, the passengers spied something amiss: “H-E-L-P was spelled out on the beach in logs,” says Fontaine. After circling around, the pilot decided to land. There they found a small group attending to a hiker with a fractured femur. The pilot assisted by airlifting the seriously injured man who was met by a boat ambulance in Bamfield.
That rescue, “was the best thing that ever happened to us,” says Fontaine, highlighting to board members the rugged coast and an ability to rise to unanticipated challenges.
After a series of discussions, the search sub-committee unanimously recommended Bamfield above all other sites on March 11, 1969. All were smitten with its uniqueness.
Then, the tricky land purchase negotiations began.
“Bamfield was in many ways very appealing,” says Mackie. Compared to the marine research station in Washington State, “It couldn’t have been more different from the very tranquil scene in Friday Harbor, which is a sheltered bay.”
Bamfield offered a site closer to the open ocean, accessible, by boat, to high energy intertidal habitats — rocks battered by enormous waves, resplendent with goose barnacles and California mussels.
“The trouble with Bamfield was getting there,” says Mackie. “You pretty well had to fly, or there were 60 miles of dirt road, and I couldn’t see it taking off with all that distance and inconvenience.”
On the plus side, however, was the derelict but intact cable station building.
These were the roots of today’s Bamfield Marine Science Centre.
Though its name has changed and its participants diversified, its vision – to provide opportunities for life-changing exploration and discovery in coastal and marine environments — has endured and flowered.
In the beginning, starting with nothing, “we had to improvise everything,” says Druehl, who still lives and works in Bamfield.
Now, with state-of-the-art freshwater and marine aquaria, research vessels, laser scanning microscopes, a fluid dynamics lab, housing and food services for more than 150 people, BMSC is a world-class facility of international repute, its research frequently gracing the pages of top tier scientific journals.
From pure science discoveries to pharmaceutical innovations, conceptual advancements, and global collaborations, BMSC has transformed our understanding of the sea and its creatures.
“It’s blossomed more than anyone could have expected,” says Mackie. “It’s turned out to be an enormous boon not just to the five universities but to visitors from around the world.”
Aerial photos courtesy of Oliver Evans.
Historical photos from 1969, courtesy of Ron Long