It’s kind of hard to believe that there could be anything magical at all contained in the great concrete behemoth that greets visitors as they arrive by boat in the tiny settlement of Bamfield. The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre is, without a doubt, one of the least attractive buildings in the entire remote settlement perched on the west coast of the Island. On the inside, however, BMSC is full of beauty, intrigue and history.
The centre is sited at the entrance to Bamfield Inlet and ultimately replaced (very sadly) an original building designed by renowned architect Francis Rattenbury, who created such notable landmarks as the B.C. legislative buildings and the Empress Hotel in Victoria. Rattenbury’s grandiose structure perched on the hilltop looking out to Barkley Sound and provided a fine base for employees of the Pacific Cable Board cable station, the eastern terminus of a 4,000 kilometre undersea trans-Pacific telegraph cable. Dining rooms, an extensive library, music and billiards were all available – it certainly must have seemed like extravagant luxury in the wilds of the Pacific coast in 1902!
The concrete building that currently houses the marine station was built in 1926 to accommodate offices for employees of a second submarine cable. When the Rattenbury place fell into disrepair it was demolished and the concrete structure became the dominant feature at the entrance to the inlet. The cable station was shut down in 1959 and for a decade the building that had housed it sat unused until the concept of a marine sciences centre was floated for the location. Now it serves as a research and public education hub supported by no less than five western universities – an admirable collaboration that has brought world-class work to one of the most isolated settlements in the country.
We were fortunate enough to be able to participate in a 1 ½ hour tour of the centre during a trip to Bamfield. About three dozen visitors of all ages gathered at the centre on a sunny afternoon and were greeted by Kelly Clement, our engaging tour guide.
Kelly launched the tour by telling us a little bit about the community of Bamfield, after which we moved inside to the main entrance foyer. It is pretty much the most attractive part of the building, finished in wood and featuring aquariums displaying sea creatures native to the area. The rest of the place is strictly utilitarian, housing labs, classrooms and offices. But by traversing all three levels of the centre we came to appreciate so much of the importance of what goes on at BMSC. Kelly told us about the endangered abalone – a species I recall consuming with gusto way back in the 1970s, but now in serious decline due to over-fishing. We learned that star fish can re-grow legs, and we had the opportunity to speak with a researcher who was studying pipe fish. There were touch tanks that absolutely entranced visitors, young and old. And down the final steep flight of stairs to what Kelly calls the ‘creepy’ basement – low ceilings and all – we found yet more research projects in progress.
The final stop on the tour was a classroom setting that featured real skeletons of salvaged sea creatures, the largest of which was a baby whale – I don’t think an adult one could have been fitted in to the available space.
Truly, taking the tour was an afternoon well-spent. Learning about the marine life and environment that help to make Bamfield and the west coast the very special places that they are was not only enlightening, but fun. In addition to the research the station runs a great variety of special programs for students, school groups and the general public. I think we may have to return!
And, as an aside: as if to compensate for the less-than-enchanting edifice of the main concrete building, the 2004 addition of the extremely beautiful glass-fronted, scallop-shaped Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries has helped immensely in redeeming the site on the aesthetic front. It also houses labs and offices as well as a stunning auditorium – and, of course, an aquarium.
Further information on the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre and its extensive program offerings can be found at the website:
The centre is located at 100 Pachena Road in East Bamfield
GPS co-ordinates are:
Lat. 48.83528900115949 Long. -125.13547897338867
N 48 50.117 W 125 08.129