Story 6 – Life at Bamfield

For fifty years, students, staff and visitors have had the opportunity to spend time at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre. Across the decades, life at the station has transformed dramatically. Its proximity to the bounty of the Pacific ocean remains unchanged, but with time, money, imagination, and elbow grease, it has evolved into a comfortable, modern habitat. 

Station Life

In the early years after its establishment, Bamfield Marine Station (its earlier name) was considered by many the “Wild West of Canadian Marine Biology,” notes Glyn Sharp. Now retired from a career with Oceans and Fisheries Canada, during his Master’s at Simon Fraser University, Sharp was one of the teaching assistants hired to teach at the fledgling station in the summer of 1972. 

Summer of 1972 at BC Packers on the west side of Bamfield.
United Church (left) and the Manse, 1969

That summer, there was no accommodation available on the newly purchased site. Groups of students from various universities bunked down at the United Church. Glyn Sharp and Dr. Bill Austin stayed at the BC Packers building across the inlet – a former fish packing plant. In subsequent years, before cabins and dormitories were completed, students at the marine station stayed in tents on wooden platforms, later nabbing floor space in the newly built BMSC cafeteria.

It takes a village

Glyn Sharp, 1972

Life during the early 1970s at BMSC was “a pretty free and open time,” says Sharp. One favourite memory was his defence. His supervisors decided to open the event to the whole Bamfield community. Curiosity ran high. Fishers and others attended in large numbers. Sharp gave his presentation, followed by a multitude of committee questions. “It went on for a good hour or more,” says Sharp. Afterwards, concerned he’d been unfairly treated, Sharp remembers community members asking him, “What’s wrong with these guys? They wouldn’t leave you alone.” 

They’d never seen a defence, says Sharp, and this strange and novel community event “was a big deal to them,” says Sharp, his professors regally arriving by float plane.

Bamfield was then (and still is) a pretty isolated place with many eccentric characters. In the early 1970s, recalls Sharp, it was the hippy days and “a very lively social situation.” 

In the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of socializing between the people of the village — mainly fishers — and the marine station, recalls Katherine Ellis. She arrived there in 1975 with her husband, Derek Ellis, newly appointed station manager. Ellis says there was no animosity between village and station people, “but they weren’t holding parties.” 

With time, however, that changed.

Ellis recalls elaborate soirees later on at the best venue in town – the United Church. Located on the opposite side of the inlet from the marine station, staff and their families had to get there by boat. “It was in the days of evening dress and high-heeled shoes,” says Ellis. So dressed in fancy duds, they would put their shoes in plastic bags, don rain gear and gumboots, and boat across. After safely docking on the other side, says Ellis, “you took your evening dress out of your [rain] pants and went and had a very elegant party.” 

For special events held at the marine station, Ellis would sometimes help in the kitchen. Feeding everyone on a tight budget, she recalls, was challenging. So the chef was meticulous, making his helpers weigh every meatball.

Dr. Normam Wilimovsky at a Bamfield Community Hall luncheon, 1969

Speaking of helpers, in the 1970s at BMSC, it was often all hands on deck. 

To get to amenities on the far side of the inlet from the station — the store, most of the houses, Brady’s Beach, the dock for the Lady Rose, and the red cross helicopter pad — there were only two zodiacs. So, says Ellis, “We co-opted our two youngest sons, 10 and 12, to be responsible for taxi service for two hours each, at breakfast, lunch and dinner time so that students could go across to the beach or store… This worked like a charm except when the boys ran doughnuts around the fishing boats or got in the way of sea-planes landing.”

All hands on deck was sometimes a necessity in the kitchen too. As former director John McInerney (who arrived in 1975) recalls, cooking staff didn’t always turn up as scheduled. As a result, “learning to bake tasty pancakes for a busload of hungry students was an important additional skill for resident staff, including the Director.” At that time, frequent power outages, he recalls, were another vexing problem.

Dr. John McInerney, BMSC Director 1975-78, 1986-92
Dr. Kevin (KC) Burns, BMSC graduate student 1996

Pitching in to help those in need was a thread throughout the decades. Arriving from California in 1996 as a “kid that wandered away from Los Angeles,” then UCLA doctoral student Kevin Burns says the place felt so unfamiliar at first that “it was like Mars.” 

Burns recalls his tight graduate student budget meant shipping in, on the Lady Rose, “industrial-sized boxes of Kraft Dinner, with bags of sausages that I’d freeze.” Lunch was a box of Kraft Dinner. Supper was the same, with a sausage. He and fellow graduate students worried they would get scurvy but soon learned they could get nutrients cheaply at the all-you-can-eat cafeteria salad bar. However, the head cook soon feared that their industrial-sized appetites for greens would annihilate his budget and began kicking them out. Observing this, another cook took pity on the hungry “kids,” secretly leaving buckets of leftovers – like potatoes and beef stroganoff – out the kitchen’s back door. “We were basically feral,” says Burns, “and Lucy fed us on the sly,” he recalls fondly.

Burns says one thing that struck him was how well BMSC looked after him, providing teaching opportunities when the money ran short. “It was like this benevolent family,” he says, adding, “If you look after BMS, it will look after you.”

Shifting values, historical truths

When BMSC was established fifty years ago, recalls Glyn Sharp, “First Nation rights were not very strong.” It was an era of limited acknowledgement and respect for traditional territory holders of the land: the Huu-ay-aht First Nations (HFN), whose history on the coast spans millennia. 

Current Huu-ay-aht Chief Councillor Robert J. Dennis Sr. (Emchayiik) notes that the many shell middens around the town of Bamfield, and the culturally modified trees on the BMSC property, are evidence of the Nation’s long history of living on these traditional lands. “Historically, we did occupy all of Bamfield Inlet,” says Chief Dennis, “It’s not just a coincidence that we’re not there,” he says, referring to the impact of colonization on his people. 

Huu-ay-aht First Nations Chief Councillor Robert Dennis (Mike Youds photo).

His Nation was not only displaced and forced onto reserve lands but also decimated, with some 90% of the population dying as a result of colonizers introducing European diseases like smallpox. “It’s always been a myth that we only lived on the reserve lands allocated to us,” says Chief Dennis. Before the land purchase for the research station, the Huu-ay-aht had been offered the old cable station property. 

At that time, Chief Dennis explains, the federal government was trying to persuade Huu-ay-aht First Nations to give up lands abutting Pachena Bay as part of the West Coast Trail in what is now Pacific Rim National Park. The government, says Chief Dennis, wanted to compensate the Huu-ay-aht by giving them the Cable Station property in exchange. “Our elders of the day didn’t agree with that,” says Chief Dennis, on the basis that it wasn’t fair to be ‘compensated’ with land already rightly theirs. That, says Chief Dennis, provides part of the context for why the relationship between BMSC and the Huu-ay-aht First Nations has historically been “strained.”

Like BMSC, Chief Dennis shares a passion for the sea. Sent to residential school as a child, he recalls how quickly, when allowed to return home for short periods over holidays, he would head to the coast to get hayištup, the “rock stickers” (what scientists call chiton). “That’s the first thing we would do,” he says. “We were eating seafood every day.”

One tangible act towards reconciliation that Chief Dennis hopes may eventually come is BMSC acknowledging that if it ever ceases to operate, they would give HFN back their land. He invites more dialogue and a future of true and meaningful reconciliation [Chapter 12 from: “Rez Rules by Chief Clarence Louis; “Reconciliation: Time for Canada and the United States to Tell the Truth”]. For the relationship to improve, he says of those at BMSC: “they’ve got to come down here and meet with us more often and hear our side.” 

In the future, Chief Dennis envisions all students at BMSC being taught what he calls “HFN 101,” a course taught by Elders that would cover the true history of the land and traditional use of resources, “rather than just from the start of colonialism,” he says. In moving forward, says Chief Dennis, “It is time for Canada and Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, to tell the truth.”

Recently, he notes the relationship between BMSC and HFN has been on a better path. A balance of nature and web of life is what the Huu-ay-aht call Hišuk ma c̕awak (Taking care of), and healthy oceans and coastal ecosystems is a shared goal of HFN and BMSC. A dialogue between the HFN and BMSC that began in the early 2000s has recently culminated in the success of a major project opened in 2022: construction of a shared water treatment plant.

“We are starting to develop a relationship over the last few years that has proved to be very worthwhile; very encouraging,” says Chief Dennis.

More trips down memory lane

Shirley Pakula is one of many with a similar origin story of how they came to work at BMSC. “I came out to visit and just fell in love with Bamfield and ended up staying,” says Pakula, who worked various jobs around town and as a research assistant for Louis Druehl before beginning a job as receptionist and secretary for BMSC in 1989. 

“It was always a very exciting place to be,” says Pakula. Apparently so. It was a job she flourished in for 32 years. 

From her desk in the main office overlooking the inlet, with a pair of binoculars always beside her, “you’d always see what was going on in town,” says Pakula. Sometimes whales would come in. And boats would go in and out. “There was always something going on,” she says.

Across the decades, the highlight of BMSC for Pakula, something many others note too, was the people. “The people were always so much fun,” she says. 

She saw the place change dramatically over time, with new buildings constructed. Hundreds of students and Canadian and international researchers came and went. Interacting with nearly everyone from her hub of operations, she noticed some young students so inspired by their BMSC high school field trip experience that they returned later as undergraduates, then graduate students, then professors themselves.

The "Kelpettes', 1980's, Photo courtesy of L. Druehl. Left to right: Kitty Lloyd, Lesley Rimmer, Ann Lindwall, Robin Boal, Shirley Pakula.
Shirley Pakula, 2016
Dr. Tamzin Blewett

University of Alberta’s professor Tamzin Blewett is one of those returnees. “To be there as a Principal Investigator,” says Blewett, after time there as a student and postdoc, “was really surreal.” Blewett has fond memories of evenings at the station hearing the sounds of Music By the Sea drift over to her cabin. Being at Bamfield, “You feel like you’re at the edge of the Earth,” says Blewett. “It’s an overwhelming, magical experience.”

Music, whether at the Music by the Sea festival at the Rix centre or informally with guitars and songs around sunset campfires on the beach, is just one of the many experiences at BMSC that goes beyond science. Station escapades have included polar bear swims, an unsuccessful student-led movement to build a sauna, games at the tennis court lined with white seashells, art projects, soapbox derbies, village dances, seaweed cooking competitions, Friday night socials on the Director’s deck, citizen science BioBlitzes, and a myriad of other experiences by the sea. 

“I am absolutely ecstatic to have been part of the last 25 odd years of the station,” says fish physiologist Greg Goss of the University of Alberta, who was introduced to BMSC in 1999, as an undergraduate, by his supervisor, UBC physiologist Chris Wood. One of the scientists whose career has been shaped by that formative BMSC experience, Goss wistfully recalls that some of the most powerful experiences at the station have been shared, informal moments. Sitting with ten or twenty students from many different universities, plus staff and colleagues, watching the sun go down and having a fire on Pachena beach, “it’s not a scientific moment,” says Goss, “but it’s the moment that really tells you about the community.” 

The Greg Goss Lab, 2015

In 2005 Samantha Magnus, a student of the fall program student summed up her experience, one that resonates with many others: “Whether we were elbow-deep in tide-pools, knee-deep in estuarine muck, or waist-deep in surge channels, we were deeply transformed at BMSC,” she recalls. “Never in my life have I worked so hard, learned so much, nor had so much fun.”