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.
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.
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.
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…”