Story 7 – BMSC Boats and Diving

Boats and diving are integral to Bamfield Marine Science Centre’s work and the experiences it provides for field trip participants, students and researchers. From modest and sometimes haphazard beginnings, BMSC’s fleet has grown to include its key ships — the M/V Alta and M/V Barkley Star — with a supporting cast of many smaller boats. On the wild Northeast Pacific coast, where the ocean’s whims require deep respect and expertise, BMSC has evolved a seafaring philosophy that puts safety first. For fifty years, BMSC boats and their skippers have fostered camaraderie while riding the waves, breathing the salty air, dredging the depths, hauling the catch, and exploring the sea, making exceptional educational experiences and research possible.

Former director Ron Foreman was instrumental in acquiring the station’s largest boat, the MV Alta. Named in recognition of Alberta, the province that, along with the Devonian Group of Charitable Foundations, funded its purchase, the M/V Alta was built in 1982 in Little Hoquiam Shipyards in Washington State, then outfitted at Ostrom’s Machine Shop in Bamfield.

The 13-metre-long M/V Alta accommodates a dozen passengers plus crew. Like an east coast lobster boat with a high bow and large, flat rear deck, the M/V Alta is “a pretty solid little boat to have under you,” including when the sea gets choppy, says Janice Pierce, who worked for decades as a BMSC skipper until retirement in May 2019.

Though always erring on the side of caution when the weather turned foul, Pierce remembers being out in the M/V Alta in significant swells and sometimes in fog, like when assisting researchers doing seabird surveys. “When you can’t see very far, a lot of people get sick,” says Pierce, who fortunately never suffered from seasickness.

Pierce also skippered the 10-metre long M/V Barkley Star, the boat that supports diving and operation of BMSC’s remotely operated mini-submarine (ROV). The ROV is “a pretty amazing little tool,” she says, sending images to eyeballs aboard the boat via live feed. During an abalone out planting project, Pierce recalls students on board captivated by watching divers below them deploying abalone seed.

MV Barkley Star & ROV
Skipper Janice Pierce, 2016
The BMSC Fleet, 2015

Over the years at BMSC, some drawn from the expertise of the community, reflecting the town of Bamfield’s past life as a thriving fishing port. It is a big responsibility to run and maintain the fleet of BMSC’s large and small research boats, says Pierce. During her tenure, her team was responsible for the M/V Alta, M/V Barkley Star and a suite of smaller boats like the 14 and 16 feet Copes, skiffs, and two rowboats — the Loligo and Postelsia – named after squid and kelp.

Pierce was a self-proclaimed stickler for rules and procedures. While she was on staff, as is still the case now, students were given a thorough orientation to the water and boats under the watchful eye of staff, including current Scientific Diving and Safety Officer Siobhan Gray. Apart from dinged props, “on my watch, we only had one minor mishap,” says Pierce. That mishap happened, she notes, because boat users broke the rules.

Isabelle Côté, a Simon Fraser University marine ecologist who co-teaches 3-week Scientific Diving course at BMSC, owns up to being the one that didn’t follow the rules. It was summer, and BMSC had recently acquired a skiff called The Stickleback. Côté, using the boat for the first time, had just dropped some students off to do field work on an island when she hit a rock, dinging the propeller. Sheepishly admitting to the incident, she received a response: “it’s okay, no worries.”

A few days later, driving the same boat, she again dropped students on an island. Before going back to pick them up, fog descended. Côté asked Skipper Janice Pierce to join her on the return journey to ensure she navigated back to the right place. Upon approaching the island shoreline, Côté, in the bow, did something against the rules that she now deeply regrets. “I sat and put my feet out to push the boat off the rock.”

One of her boots slipped. As it did so, the boat crushed her ankle against the rock. “I let out a guttural scream,” says Côté. Pierce swiftly put the boat in reverse, but the damage was done. Students onshore witnessed the whole thing. Pierce was beside herself, says Côté, but it wasn’t her fault. As x-rays in Port Alberni, 80km away, would later show, Côté’s leg was broken.

“I want to take back that moment so badly,” says Côté. 

There was “a lot of grey hair earned in that time on that job,” says Pierce.

Dr. Isabelle Côté, 2022

Looking to the future, however, that unfortunate injury, now healed, has not put Côté off boating. Côté is part of Salty Science, a team of four female biologists that will row nearly 5000 kilometres across the Atlantic in the 2023 Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. In addition to a safe crossing, their aim is to raise money for charities, including BMSC.

Skipper Tales

Safe boat operation has enabled many a memorable experience at BMSC. Pierce recalls one thrilling occasion when she had to stop the boat upon realizing a pod of 75 orca whales surrounded them.

Seeing the ocean through the eyes of students fresh from the prairies was another career highlight for Pierce. “Kids from Alberta always cracked me up,” she says. Out on field trips, we would warn them about the tide, but they often didn’t catch on until their backpacks were floating.

In summer courses, Pierce says she loved learning along with the students.

Skipper John Richards,2014

John Richards, another of BMSC’s former skippers, came to BMSC in the late 1990s after his fish farm operation failed due to a catastrophic plankton bloom. Ready for a new career, he briefly worked for the Lady Rose Marine Services company, but when an opportunity arose to become BMSC’s boat captain, he jumped on it. It was a job Richards thought he’d do “for a year or two just to get my feet under me,” he says. However, like many who land at Bamfield, “I realized what an awesome place it was,” he says. He stayed for 19 years, retiring in 2018.

Skippers Janice Pierce and John Richards, 2014

Richards had grown up around boats and water, which he loved, but says he didn’t have a clue what BMSC did until he started working there.

One of his greatest joys was field trips with high school kids. “A big part of my job was to take them out on the ocean, show them seals, whales, sea lions, and dredged animals like sea cucumbers,” he says, noting they’d examine creatures on board the M/V Alta, then release them to the sea. Richards estimates he took a small town’s worth of people out on the ocean — some 35,000 kids.

Recalling his own first marine field station undergraduate experience on the Atlantic coast, “I went to the east coast, to Huntsman Marine Labs, and went on a boat, just like I did with the kids,” says Richards. “I remember as if it was yesterday,” he says. Those BMSC memories created for kids, he says, were the fun part of the job.

It’s difficult to sum up the lightbulb moments kids experienced over thousands of trips, but without question, Richards says, “It’s really impactful.”

Nautical notes from the early days

In the early days of the station, at the dawn of the 1970s, rules and safety were less rigid. Boats were also in short supply, so necessity spurred resourcefulness.

Katharine Ellis, the wife of former director Derek Ellis, recalls that some of the earliest skippers for the station were her kids:

Since Bamfield was built on both sides of a long inlet, which did not have a road round it, you were stuck with boats. Nearly all the houses had jetties and a fish boat, and were connected by a boardwalk the length of the village. The marine station and all the tents were on the nearside, along with the church, manse, and some houses, but the store, most of the houses, Brady’s Beach, the dock for the Lady Rose, Packers, the Green House, and the red cross helicopter pad, were on the other side. We only had two zodiacs, so 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 without the others being stuck. This worked like a charm except when the boys ran doughnuts round the fishing boats or got in the way of sea-planes landing.

The 'Canovas', 1972
Glyn Sharp, 1972

Glyn Sharp, who worked as one of the station’s first teaching assistants in 1972 during graduate school, recalls the amazed reaction of students who had never been to the ocean when seeing colourful tide pools and Brady’s Beach. With a trawler skippered by a local retired deep-sea captain and Bamfield fisherman, Sigurd Tveit, he and his students also visited the Broken Group Islands.

Sharp recalls hairy times on the water when caught out by the weather. On one occasion, he had taken students on a zodiac from Bamfield to Long Beach in Tofino. In retrospect, Sharp regrets not heading home earlier. Windy weather came up suddenly. While heading back to Bamfield, “We got out there, and the swell had built up,” he says. “When you’re in a 12-foot rubber boat and a swell raising behind you, you hope like hell it’s not going to crest and come down on you,” says Sharp. It was a lesson in the power of the open ocean.

Another lesson in what not to do, says Sharp, involved raising a large anchor he and diving students had discovered 20-30 feet down in the Deer Group Islands. Sharp and his colleagues dreamt up the idea of raising the anchor using the leverage of an empty oil barrel filled with air. The scheme worked… but a little too well. As the anchor dislodged suddenly from the mud, shooting upwards, “it almost took my head off,” says Sharp. “I’d like to say that was the only mistake I made diving,” he says, “but I made a few more after that.”

Even in the 1980s, when it came to boat safety, marine invertebrate zoologist Louise Page of the University of Victoria says BMSC was the Wild West. While teaching there, she says, if students doing projects realized they needed to collect some sea creatures, “they would just whip down, untie a boat, and take off,” says Page. “It was very unsafe,” she says. “I was worried about it at the time.”

Safety consciousness began to take greater precedence in the 1990s. A 1992 BMSC newsletter included a segment entitled “WCB strangles SCUBA.” The writer conveyed dismay that at BMSC, “The B.C. Workers Compensation Board now requires scientific divers to meet Industrial Diving regulations.”

Fast forward to today, and now, says Page, BMSC “has become so much more safety conscious, without taking away the fun.”

Diving Safety and Scientific Diving

Today at BMSC, safety on the sea and underwater is top of mind. Ensuring that mishaps don’t happen underwater is the job of the current head of BMSC Scientific Diving and Safety, Siobhan Gray. First arriving in 2006 for a five-month volunteer position, Gray says of BMSC that “I fell in love with it immediately.” That summer was her first taste of working with researchers, some doing experiments underwater. As is the case for many others, that small taste of BMSC soon had her hooked. She began her current position full-time in 2008.

As for safety today, “the remoteness means that we really need to dot all the I’s and cross all our T’s,” says Gray. She notes that BMSC is very lucky to have a Canadian Coast Guard station right across the inlet in case of emergency.

Siobhan Gray, BMSC Dive & Safety, 2010

For boats and diving, the weather plays a significant role in planning. Concerning conditions can flare up quickly on the open coast, and flexibility is critical. The village of Bamfield has a high number of emergency first responders per capita, and many researchers have wilderness survival and first aid skills. “It makes us quite a prepared village,” says Gray. Nevertheless, risk mitigation is always on the agenda. Life on the job is never quite the same two days in a row, says Gray. Her work varies from office time to running safety orientations to diving three times a day.

In the past, there were many divers amongst BMSC staff. With fewer now, Gray is on the surface or underwater with every BMSC dive. When working with divers that have never been in Bamfield waters, there is sometimes great delight when students see marine invertebrates in the wild that they’ve only ever seen preserved in glass jars in the lab. Larger wildlife encounters are frequent too. “Often, young seals will come and join us,” says Gray.

On one occasion, while on a dive with a researcher examining sponges, she suddenly sensed that something was behind her. Curious sea lions were circling and checking them out. “I would turn, and the sea lion would be right here,” says Gray, noting that the other researcher, completely focused on the sponges below, never saw them. During a dive, “science can really take your focus,” says Gray, so it’s essential to have a team looking out for you. 

On another occasion, while collecting sponges with a researcher, “we saw a movement at our knees,” says Gray. Climbing up the undersea wall near them, wrapping its arms around the sponges, was the most enormous octopus the pair had ever seen. Giving it space, the octopus made itself red, “doing all the things it can do to say ‘my space,'” says Gray. The two watched in awe as the Pacific giant octopus climbed back down the wall and retreated under a rock. “It was very thrilling for us,” says Gray.

She also fondly recalls close encounters, while keeping a lookout in the boat for divers in the water below, with a young grey whale bobbing up and down.

At BMSC, safety in and under the water is a top priority. Despite the time pressure researchers often have to get their work done, it’s safety first, “not science at all costs,” says Gray. Boats and diving are critical to BMSC’s ability to provide a wealth of research, education and outreach opportunities. And like many other BMSC staff, Gray is passionate about her role and responsibilities in facilitating work on and under the water.

“The greatest part for me,” says Gray, “is being part of the discovery that is constantly happening here.”