Story 5 – Building a Vision

Perched atop a sea cliff overlooking a sheltered inlet on the wild Pacific coast, the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre provides visiting researchers and students with everything they could possibly need. An abundance of laboratories, classrooms, cabins and dormitory housing is available for staff and visitors. Boat docks and a dive shed at the water’s edge allow easy access to the sea. Maintenance buildings support behind-the-scenes work to keep everything ship-shape. But the extensive infrastructure that today’s visitors take for granted wasn’t always in place. Most of the amenities BMSC now boasts did not exist when the station launched as the Bamfield Marine Station in 1972. Its buildings manifest a vision that has evolved over time, alongside the station’s opportunities and impact. Across its 50 years of existence, expansion and renovation have waxed and waned. “It’s like breathing,” says former BMSC staffer Keith Wyton, comparing the station to a living entity. “Breathing in, breathing out.” Inhaling and exhaling the fresh sea air as it moves forward, this is the story of how BMSC’s visionaries imagined, persevered and realized the built environment that now supports its work.

Main Building

The view over Barkley Sound from the balcony behind the administrative office and library is often the first thing that visitors see upon arrival at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. This building’s overlook across the inlet and out to the Deer and Broken Group Islands, the jagged peaks of coast mountains of Vancouver Island in the distance, “is just breathtaking,” says graduate student Em Lim, who first came for a seaweed course, fell in love with the place, town and landscape, and keenly sought opportunities to come back. The BMSC Main Building looks relatively modest in size upon arrival by land, but looks are deceiving. It is only when viewed from the sea below that its full scale is revealed. Perched on the edge of the Pacific, the building descends down a sea cliff to the foreshore. 

Cable Station, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Bamfield Historical Society.

The BMSC Main Building, housing classrooms and laboratories on its lower research level, is also the site’s oldest building.

It began life as a Cable Station. Beginning in 1901, this was the terminus for a long undersea telegraph cable, transmitting communications from Bamfield to Fanning Island in the mid-Pacific, a distance of over 6000 kilometres.

After the station transmitted its last message on June 20th, 1959, the station closed down, made obsolete by a newer cable station in Port Alberni. This cliff-hugging building sat derelict for more than a decade before its purchase by the entity then called the Western Canadian Universities Marine Biological Society. When the BMSC property was first acquired, this building, with its sturdy grandeur, was appealing, providing existing infrastructure. But though externally solid, its interior was in a state of disrepair. “Everything was pretty dark, pretty derelict,” said Arthur Fontaine, Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria, a member of the original site search committee.

Main Building, circa 1969. Photo Ron Long

Christopher Lobban was one of the first graduate students to work at BMSC, supervised by SFU seaweed scientist Louis Druehl. Lobban had first visited the site in the summer of 1971, returning the following summer to work as a Teaching Assistant for Druehl’s seaweeds course. As for memories of that summer, “I remember lots of rain. Rain, rain, rain, rain,” says Lobban. Now a professor emeritus at the University of Guam, then an SFU graduate student, Lobban wrote some reflections about the station’s condition in 1972.

“Ivy grew in the windows and encircled the urinals and water pipes. A safe without a dial squatted in one room, locking nothing from nobody. The high ceilings’ paint was peeling, the plaster was cracked, the reinforced glass windows hid under thick cobwebs behind the bars, the floorboards and brickwork were laid bare in strips…”


In his written reflections of that time, Lobban also wrote that UBC students camping inside the derelict building during 1969 survey work had heard strange whooshing and banging sounds in the middle of the night suggesting the old building had a ghost.

Chris Lobban, 1972

In its first year of operation in 1972, with the building deemed unfit for occupation, summer classes were taught off-site, across the inlet in an old BC Packers cannery.

A face lift for the building’s dilapidated interior with its flaking paint, damaged ceilings and bare floors was a first priority for the fledgling research station.

Looking across the harbour from BMS to BC Packers, 1972. Photo Ron Long

By 1973, however, the old cable station had been reborn with new ceilings, renovated floors, freshly painted walls and durable lab benches. A visitor’s area, lecture hall, and library were added to the Main Building in 1982, and a decade later, the library was expanded to almost double in size.

Construction in the early days at BMSC was subject to the occasional practical joke. During one renovation of the Main Building lobby, then graduate student and now Aberdeen University Professor Beth Scott recently fessed up to being “a bit naughty in 1983” along with a group of fellow graduate students visiting BMSC that summer. The antics she confessed involved moving a BMSC vehicle – a Volkswagen bug — into the building under construction, also relocating some signs (“Day Parking Only”) to warn others of their endeavours. 

“We thought it all a bit of harmless fun – until we learned of a delegation from Japan that was on site the day after the night before  – only to witness our little shenanigans – real trouble if we were to be found out – so this is the first time these pictures, taken by yours truly, have been shown in public in 37 years,” said Scott in an email.

1983 shenanigans. Photo Beth Scott

The basement of the Main Building now houses the Stickleback Laboratories, rooms designed for breeding and rearing these small fish as model systems for understanding molecular evolution in natural populations. These wet labs, housing rows of aquaria supplied with flow-through seawater and dechlorinated freshwater, provide opportunities for replicated experiments. 

BMSC’s flow through seawater system, made possible with powerful pumps and significant plumbing, has been fundamental to observational and experimental work since the station’s early days. When the system built by Pentair, became operational in 1973, University of British Columbia fisheries professor Normal Willmovsky was quoted in the Vancouver Sun as saying, “The sea water system is the most sophisticated and modern in North America.” Referring to the seven seawater modules operating in one laboratory at the time, he brashly boasted “Rube Goldberg was an amateur compared to this.”

More than a century after the original cable building took shape, its many renovations and additions have kept this building the healthy heart of BMSC operations. From its former life transmitting information under the sea to its new life supporting wet labs for marine research, classrooms for education, a library, and offices for administration, it remains a vital hub of communications.

Whale Lab

Adjacent to the Main Building is the Whale Lab. “This is the home of our Field Trip Program,” BMSC’s public education program, says Field Trip Coordinator Kelly Clement.

The Whale Lab is so-named because a carefully curated and lovingly prepared skeleton of a young gray whale hangs from its ceiling. In 1984, a BMSC Marine Mammals course acquired what was then a stinky, partially decomposed nine-metre long gray whale that had washed up on an island offshore. To extract and prepare its skeleton, volunteers spent hours bleaching and scrubbing its many bones.

Once cleaned, the gray whale skeleton was reassembled, with help from a visiting curator from Alberta’s Tyrrell Museum, and mounted in its current location. Now it takes pride of place against a dramatic bright blue background, hanging alongside a number of smaller marine mammal skeletons. 

Students visiting the whale lab have an opportunity to interact with live sea creatures too. With a sophisticated circulation system, “water gets pumped up from the inlet,” says Clement, allowing staff to keep live animals in the classroom environment. That allows students to interact with intertidal organisms in touch tanks and take a closer look at tiny creatures like plankton under microscopes. Video conferencing technology allows broadcasting from the Whale Lab for remote learning too. Sometimes, learning here goes deeper. The whale lab’s remotely operated underwater camera allows for students in the lab, or those visiting virtually, to see underwater worlds open up before their eyes. 

Director’s Residence

Built with a striking view over the water, and surrounded by heritage rhododendrons, its construction began in the summer of 1979. Living in the new Director’s house, had its exciting moments, recalls former director John McInerney such as a visit by a black bear, who pushed open the unlocked entrance and proceeded to eat a gingerbread house on the dining room table.

“This was followed by a tour of the kitchen and two bedrooms (unoccupied), where some chocolate candy was unwrapped and eaten before leaving, again by the open front door. We never hear a thing, sleeping in a bedroom at the other end of the residence. On another occasion, a cougar, spotted in the garden, coincided with the disappearance of our pet cat. Even more amazing, one night we were awakened by splashing sounds below the deck outside our bedroom patio doors. This turned out to be a Grey Whale feasting on herring roe stuck to kelp fronds growing near the steep shore.”

Cable Tank

What was once the housing for a giant spool of cabling has been cleverly repurposed as a large tank fittingly called the cable tank. Its renovation was completed in 1990, with a further upgrade in 2017.

The circular enclosed tank is 9 meters in diameter and 2.4 meters deep, with a volume of about 140,000 litres. Used for experimental studies, it can be supplied with seawater or dechlorinated freshwater. Past research projects have used this tank to study herring acoustics and dogfish sharks.

Fluids Dynamics Laboratory

The Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, constructed in 2004 and fully operational by 2006, is a long slender building housing a 12-meter flume chamber. This is the only such flume in Western North America. Used to study hydrodynamics like those of seaweeds, fish, barnacle feeding and underwater turbine systems by academic and industrial researchers in Canada, the US and beyond, the building also houses a swim tunnel, a stickleback breeding laboratory, preparation rooms, and a laser-induced fluorescence system for visualizing flow dynamics.

Construction of this highly specialized piece of equipment was no easy feat in such a remote location, explains Keith Wyton. Wyton was the BMSC Staff member in charge of overseeing the project, funded by a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. The facility’s construction was so specialized that BMSC did the contracting themselves, working with a glass company, master plumber, and engineering company to construct the component parts. The aluminum metal frame, fabricated by a company in Richmond, was shipped to BMSC disassembled, in pieces, “like a big Lego set,” says Wyton. Another contractor measured, constructed, supplied and installed the glass, embedded in silicone to withstand the constant sloshing of seawater. Next came the plumbing and pumps. Overall, “It was a very well-engineered and well-executed piece of work,” says Wyton. The unique facility continues to be in demand for use by researchers internationally.

Ecophysiology Laboratory

Construction of the foreshore Ecophysiology laboratory was due to the vision of Andy Spencer, the centre’s director for 11 years beginning in 1993. Though BMSC’s remote location is often lauded as an asset for ecologists, its remoteness had posed a major challenge to molecular biologists and physiologists requiring high tech facilities. Spencer’s efforts to upgrade available facilities were realized in the construction of the  completed in 1995, along with new docks and boats.

Dr. Andy Spencer, BMSC Director 1993 - 2004

The Ecophysiology Laboratory and  were subsequently renovated and upgraded in 2007 to create a combined wet-research and public education laboratory, along with increased aquarium capacity, a fish physiology laboratory, neurobiology laboratory, wet and dry equipment rooms, radioisotope lab, darkroom, technicians office, study carrels and a coffee lounge. Three laboratories within the building were certified by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for isotope use and equipped with a liquid scintillation counter, atomic absorption spectrometer, low temperature freezer and autoclave.

“It would not be an exaggeration to say, that by the time Andy left in 2004 to take up a post with Vancouver Island University, BMSC had undergone the greatest change in infrastructure since its initial conversion from the Pacific Cable Board (PCB) Cable Station,” wrote physiologist Steven Buckingham in a memoriam tribute to Spencer, who had been his mentor at BMSC. The Ecophysiology Lab was officially dedicated to Spencer in 2011. 

Accommodations — Cabins & Dormitories

Accommodations have always been a limiting factor at BMSC’s remote location, but housing was a particular challenge in the station’s early days. Katharine Ellis, wife of Derek Ellis, the first Station Manager of what was then the WCUMBS Bamfield Marine Station, recalls that when they arrived in 1973, “Not much had been prepared for the influx of students.” There were no cabins, and the large cafeteria building with kitchen and sitting room was not yet completed. While their family settled into their new surroundings – a small hotel followed by the “Green House” in West Bamfield, “Derek was fighting with the higher powers about the tents planned for the students,” she says. He insisted on wooden tent platforms to keep students above the soggy ground. Without support for his idea, however, he eventually paid to construct the platforms out of his own pocket. The student tent area, says Ellis, came to be known as Mud Hollow. For the first six weeks during that summer of 1973, it rained every day. Mud Hollow lived up to its name.

In the summer of 1973, “instructors were given grand accommodation in the old Packers Building on the far side,” says Ellis. They had to get creative with blankets strung up for privacy, she recalls, “but at least they were dry.” The students, to provide some comfort, created a sauna and built a boardwalk from the tents to the unfinished cafeteria. In spite of the rain, those on site had to carefully restrict their use of drinking water, which came from a tank. The tank’s levels were checked regularly, and most were reasonable about conservative water use, with the exception of one graduate student, notes Ellis, “who decided to clean out his 5 foot diameter aquaria, and drained the water tank within inches, so that we were rationed for the rest of the term.”

Those days had different social mores, recalls Ellis. Most students arrived by car, and “since there was a rule against unmarried students sleeping together, there was a student delegation at the gates informing couples that they needed to say they were married!”

Earlier, in 1972, one of the station’s first graduate students, Christopher Lobban, compiled a book reflecting on that year at the station. He wrote, “In years to come, I expect, people will occasionally come upon this book, blow the dust off it, and having read it, exclaim, “Good Lord, how could anybody have run a Marine Station under those conditions?!” And to those people, all I can say is, they did!”

Building more robust accommodations than tents at Mud Hollow was a priority. So soon after research and classes began, so did the construction of cabins. Construction of the first set of student dormitories began in 1979. The Seaside Dorm was completed in time for summer courses in 1980. Demand for housing remained a challenge, and Director Ron Foreman commented in a January 1982 newsletter that “Housing on-site is going to be very tight, especially in July and August.”

As additional funds were secured, BMSC added more accommodations, with a newer student dormitory, Buchanan Student Lodge, opened in 2004. With its cafeteria, eight cabins, and student residences, BMSC can now provide housing and food for up to 180 visitors simultaneously.

For all of its buildings, expansions, and renovations, “It’s been a challenge over the years to get work done on budget because of the remoteness,” explains Wyton. Most academic locations are just down the road from a hardware store like Home Depot or Home Hardware, says Wyton. Not so for BMSC. “When you’re in Bamfield,” he says, “that’s 2 hours away.” That makes what’s successfully been built and improved upon all the more valuable and appreciated.

Its remoteness, and the power of nature unleashing strong winds, heavy rain and power cuts, have instilled in its staff and supporters a strong motivation for resilience, self-sufficiency and careful financial and logistical planning. A $3M strategic infrastructure project in 2018 saved the electrical grid, built a backup generator, and replaced other end-of-life infrastructure allowing BMSC to weather the storms and bob the waves of its ups and downs.

Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries

From high above, the Rix Centre looks like a giant scallop shell dropped by the seashore. That’s no accident. The building’s architecture was purpose-designed to showcase BMSC’s connection to the sea. Overlooking Bamfield Inlet, the centre combines classroom and lecture hall space on the upper level, and wet and dry laboratories, computer laboratories, seminar rooms, and offices on the level below.

Dr. Donald B. Rix

Named for former BMSC board member and major benefactor, the late Dr. Donald Rix, this now iconic building was designed by de Hoog & Kierulf Architects. The structure of a scallop shell inspired the entry, main reception areas, and roof, the latter requiring a design that could shed rainfall amounts that in Bamfield can be over three meters per year. 

With its top floor meeting space used for classes, gatherings and conferences, the Rix Centre also houses research facilities like the Environmental Integrity Lab, Biotechnology Lab supporting biochemistry, physiology, molecular and cell biology work; and the Digital Imaging Facility with its confocal laser scanning microscope for zooming in on microscopic sea life. 

Peter de Hoog, the lead architect who masterminded the Rix Building’s design, tells its fascinating back story. It all started, de Hoog recalls, when BMSC’s then Director Andy Spencer and staff walked anxiously into his office on Christmas Eve early in the new millennium. Worried because another architect they’d engaged to deliver ideas had failed to produce anything, time was growing short. They needed something to present at a fast approaching board meeting. So de Hoog was tasked with envisioning something contemporary and unusual. At that first critical board meeting, his initial modern design effort was nixed by Rix, who wanted something more symbolic of a direct connection with the sea. 

Sent back to the drawing board, de Hoog recalls sitting at home brainstorming with his young daughter. “I grabbed a bag of seashells that we had collected over time and threw them on the kitchen table and started looking at them,” he says. It was the scallop shell that they realized, when held on a tilt, had potential. “So I drew that,” says de Hoog and “Mr. Rix was happy.” The contractor was harder to convince. “The contractor looked at the drawings and said ‘there’s no way I can build that,’ ” says de Hoog. But eventually, build it they did.

The Rix Centre’s unobstructed view over the harbour was very intentional. We “spent quite a bit of time on site laying the building out to make sure that orientation was angled exactly right to catch that view of the inlet,” says de Hoog.

Upon visiting the site for a final building inspection in 2004, de Hoog says one of his concerns about the interior was its suspected poor acoustics, with the potential for reverberation of sound off the hard surfaces like the extensive glass.

“When I walked in, I was quite delightfully surprised that the acoustics were actually really, really good,” says de Hoog, who suspects that’s due to a combination of the arches, sloped window wall, and shape of the room. He remembers thinking, “This room really needs music. It had that quality to it,” he says. Serendipitously, the following winter during a pub conversation, a friend mentioned his dream to produce a music festival in a venue with a great ocean view. That conversation birthed Music By The Sea, a summer festival that continues to this day.

De Hoog, now semi-retired, says it’s rewarding to see the building not only used for its initial purpose – supporting marine science – but also supporting cultural and community functions. Reflecting back on his career, “It was one of those standout projects that you don’t get to do very often,” he says. “The building has a lot of memories.” 

The stunning view from the Rix Centre has been memory-making for many scientific and educational visitors too. Some have been lucky enough to witness a dramatic pause during events or lectures in its main meeting area when they have a million dollar view of the acrobatic performances of humpback whales in the waters below. 

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