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Bamfield Marine Station: Biology by the Sea

By road there are two ways to reach the village of Bamfield, sheltered on the south shore of Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island's west coast. You can turn off the Trans-Canada Highway just north of Duncan and head west past scenic Lake Cowichan, leaving the pavement at Youbou and travelling the remainder of the way by logging roads. After Youbou the distance is better calculated in hours—about two, if it doesn't take you overly long to change a flat tire—than in kilometres or miles. The alternative route, south from Port Alberni, might be slightly better (especially if it's raining) but you spend as much time on logging roads, and if you are coming from the Victoria end of the Island the over-all trip is about an hour longer.

Both routes share the final hour-long stretch of road, and sometime after you decide that this succession of rocks and potholes could not possibly lead anywhere, but before you turn back, you arrive in Bamfield. Not a metropolis of any size, certainly, but the home of more than 200 persons and a village with interesting links to the outside world.

After you have experienced Bamfield and to most who visit here, particularly those who live in the inland cities, Bamfield is above all an experience of another existence—you realize that by coming overland you have arrived through the back door. It is the sea that Bamfield embraces. A school boat gathers its children and takes them back and forth from the village schoolhouse. Main Street is Bamfield Inlet. Shopping is accomplished by boat, and the traffic has been known to include visitors from a pod of grey whales. On Friday and Saturday evenings the village's pizza parlor is open for business; deliveries are made by boat.

Beyond Bamfield, interrupted only by a few scattered islands, the open Pacific stretches for thousands of kilometres, to the shores of Asia and to the lands down under. It was precisely this circumstance that made Bamfield a strategic point linking the peoples of Australia and New Zealand with the centre of the far-flung British Empire in the pioneering years of modern communications technology. And despite its small size and remoteness, Bamfield continues to have important links to the outside world.

It is, for one thing, the base for a Canadian Coast Guard lifesaving station responsible for rescuing ships and for providing medical support for outlying districts along a major portion of Vancouver Island's west coast. And for the University of Alberta and four other Western Canadian universities Bamfield is an important link with the salt waters that cover more than two-thirds of our planet's surface and with the creatures that make their home where life began.

The Bamfield Marine Station was established in 1972 by the Western Canadian Universities Marine Biological Society (WCUMBS), a consortium of the Universities of British Columbia, Victoria, Simon Fraser, Calgary and Alberta.

Research in a wide variety of marine studies is supported, with particular emphasis given to the biology of the inhabitants of the seashore and shallow waters. Typical studies include invertebrate zoology; comparative endocrinology of primitive vertebrates such as hagfish and ratfish; distribution and resource utilization of marine plants; ecology and population biology of fish; and ecology and feeding behavior of marine birds and animals. In addition to laboratories and aquaria, the station's facilities include residences, a dining hall and lecture room, a 5,300-volume library, a small museum, and a building for the use of divers. In addition to a fleet of small boats, the station also operates a 12-metre research vessel, the M/V Alta.

The station's 75-hectare site provides about three kilometres of shoreline. The land formerly belonged to the Canadian Telecommunications Corporation, which acquired it in 1902 for the eastern terminus of the Pacific Cable Board's trans-Pacific cable, part of the "All-Red Cable Route" (red being the conventional color of the British Empire on maps of the day). This route, championed by Sir Sanford Fleming, was envisioned as a quick and efficient telegraph network connecting the wide-spread British dominions. Its longest link was between Bamfield and the tiny mid-Pacific atoll of Fanning Island, which were connected by a continuous cable 5,697 kilometres long. From Fanning Island the cable continued on to Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.

At the Bamfield cable station, messages travelling both to and from the south Pacific were received and repeated for transmission along the next legs of their journey. At any one time as many as 50 persons—operators and support staff were employed at the cable station before it was closed in 1959 (at which time a new cable was extended to a semi-automatic station at Port Alberni). After the Bamfield site was abandoned all of the buildings on the property were torn down except for the large concrete building added below the original cable station in 1926. This building, found to be structurally sound, is now the marine station's main laboratory. It was one of Bamfield's selling points when WCUMBS was searching Canada's west coast for a marine station site in the late 1960s, but it was by no means Bamfield's only attraction.

Fu-Shiang Chia, the University of Alberta's dean of graduate studies and research and an internationally respected marine biologist, lists some of the other factors that made Bamfield a "far-sighted" choice for a marine station to serve the western universities: an open coast environment, an extremely rich variety of plant and animal life, the availability of good quality seawater close to shore, and a location not likely to be subjected to the ravages of pollution for long into the future.

Dr. Chia is well acquainted with the Bamfield facility. For a number of years he has been one of the University of Alberta's two representatives on the marine station's management council, and for three years he was president of WCUMBS. And whenever he can—too rarely these days, for his liking—he "gets his hands wet" in the station's laboratory. However, his administrative duties being what they are, for the most part he must be content with a somewhat drier involvement in research, working through his technicians, post- doctoral fellows and graduate students. He currently has three graduate students working full-time at Bamfield; his technicians and post-docs regularly travel back and forth between the laboratories at Edmonton and Bamfield.

While Dr. Chia can recall visits to Bamfield in the days before the marine station was operational—he and his students found accommodation in the community hall or, later, in tents—he didn't arrive at the University until 1969, just at the tail end of the process that led to the selection of the Bamfield site. However, one of the leading spirits in the whole selection and development process was another University of Alberta zoologist, the late Donald Ross, the University's former dean of Science. In fact the report proposing the station's further development and expansion is commonly known as the "Ross Report."

Dr. Chia explains the attraction that the open coast had for the selection team: "The eventual decision to locate at Bamfield rather than on the inside coast of the Island was because there are some marine stations—for example the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Archipelago area and the Canadian government station at Nanaimo—on the inside. They were looking for something different from that, a complement to that, and therefore were looking at the open coast.

"Surprisingly, so many of the animals and plants we find at Bamfield are quite different from those at Nanaimo, says Dr. Chia. The differences, he says, relate largely to the greater forces exerted by the powerful wave and surf action of the open coast and to the differences in seawater salinity—the water at Bamfield being of a greater and much more constant salinity.

Whenever the Bamfield facility is discussed the quality of the seawater and the wide variety and healthiness of the marine life are recurring themes. An added bonus is the fact that the water quality, and therefore the richness of the flora and fauna it sustains, is not likely to be disturbed. This is due to the happy circumstance of Bamfield's location, surrounded by Crown land and adjacent to the protection of Pacific Rim National Park. "Moving around the world, at many, many of the marine stations the flora and fauna is depleted, polluted, and it is very difficult to carry on research," says Dr. Chia. "Bamfield is unique, because it is not likely to be polluted or surrounded by industry. We can do research using the proper water and so many different kinds of animals accessible to us."

In richness of marine animal life, Bamfield takes a back seat to no other location in the world. Not the Caribbean. Not the Great Barrier Reef. Nowhere. Says Dr. Chia: "I have travelled around the world, visited many laboratories, worked at many laboratories, and I don't think there is any place comparable to what we have at Bamfield. You might name the Great Barrier Reef—the diversity of life is impressive-but we have very diverse, very healthy, and very large organisms."

The health of the organisms is closely related to the superb quality of the seawater. A non-circulating system supplies this water to the station's laboratories and outside aquaria. The water is drawn from Bamfield inlet at a depth of 25 metres and is pumped into a large (19,000 litres) storage tank which provides the pressure for a constant flow of water through all the station's outlets. The system itself is rather mundane when compared to the sophisticated arrangements that can be found at other marine stations, but nowhere is the seawater provided to the laboratories and aquaria better for maintaining plant and animal life. In a number of cases organisms that have failed to thrive in other laboratories have survived nicely at Bamfield. Dr. Chia cites one example: the featherstar, a tiny invertebrate that makes its home in the shallow waters of the ocean floor. He became familiar with the featherstar at Friday Harbor. "For years, ever since I was a graduate student, we would dredge up some of this animal. We tried for years and years to bring the eggs together with sperm to fertilize them but were not successful. Then one of my graduate students went to Bamfield, and he was the first one to fertilize the eggs from a featherstar and complete the developmental history. I think this has to be attributed, in part, to the quality of water, as well as the quality of the animal. At Bamfield there are so many things we can do that could not be carried out at other places. .."

Dr. Chia, whose research interest is in the area of invertebrate reproduction and developmental biology, is not the only University of Alberta faculty member to make good use of the Bamfield facility. He is only one of three zoology professors whose full-time scientific interest is marine biology; Andy Spencer, whose specialty is the neurophysiology of jellyfish and other swimming creatures, and Richard Palmer, a population geneticist specializing in marine snails, also rely heavily on Bamfield. Others in the zoology department have related interests that take them to Bamfield at various times throughout the year, and the marine station is also popular with a wide range of other University scientists. Among these are researchers from the Faculty of Medicine, such as immunologist Tom Wegmann, who is exploring the recognition of "self" and "non-self" with reference to the peculiar clustering that takes place in some populations of sea anemones.

It is not only the established scientists and graduate students who benefit from Bamfield. Each summer the station offers six or more total immersion university credit courses. The program includes both general and specialized courses of three or six weeks duration, taught by instructors from the member universities and visiting faculty.

Colleges, secondary schools, elementary schools, naturalist clubs and adult education groups also make extensive use of the station and its facilities during the fall, winter and spring for field trips and short courses. For a number of years now, virtually from Bamfield's establishment, the University of Alberta Faculty of Extension has taken a group to the marine station each Easter. The popularity of the short course is such that each year there is a waiting list, and a number of participants sign up for a second, or even third, time.

Ron Kinney, the head of Extension's science and technology unit, has been the group leader for a number of these visits. "The exquisite scenery, even the long ride there on a big old bus—they never seem to give us a good bus—it all adds to the experience," he says. Once the group reaches the station, it is handed over to the resident course leaders for what is for most participants an abiding experience of the sea and the life it supports. If the weather co-operates and other conditions are right, the field trip will even include jigging for squid, a sea floor dredge aboard the research vessel MN Alta, a tour of the area by barge, a walk along the West Coast Trail, and observation of sea birds, eagles and sea lions. Evenings are spent in the laboratories for what Professor Kinney describes as "exquisite demonstrations and hands-on experiences." While the immediate focus of the course might best be described as the intertidal marine biology which is the station's specialty, according to Professor Kinney there is a wider purpose to the trips: "to emphasize, or at least introduce, marine culture per se to people who live on the Prairies."

Dr. Chia also speaks about the importance of exposure to the sea for prairie dwellers. "Seventy per cent of the Earth is covered by ocean. If you look from the standpoint of zoology, the majority of the different kind of creatures live in the ocean. We divide the animal kingdom into so many phyla—-say maybe 30 phyla—of these maybe half are found nowhere else except in the ocean. If you want to study these creatures you have to go to the ocean.

"Many people ask us `Why is Alberta, a Prairie university, interested in marine studies?' My answer is that because we are a Prairie university we must be. We must educate our students to that fantastic system, otherwise we deprive them of exposure to a very large quantity of knowledge."

Published Summer 1987.

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