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The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre at 50: Living and learning in the most beautiful place on earth
Arriving at Bamfield in 1988, Heather Alexander was struck by the stunning natural beauty of the location and the exhilaration of the experience – studying on the beach in torrential rain with a handful of classmates, instructors right on the beach working beside them.
For the then University of Victoria undergraduate, who attended the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre (BMSC) for a course on marine invertebrate zoology, it was a breathtaking introduction to academia.
Run through a unique partnership of five Western Canadian universities, including Simon Fraser University, the centre provides students and researchers access to a wide variety of coastal, marine and rainforest environments.
“The friends I made then are still friends now,” says Alexander, who has lived in Bamfield and worked at the BMSC for more than three decades, raising her twin boys in the small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “You form these long-standing bonds. The instructors are all very enthusiastic. I learned so much in those first six weeks, so much more than I would have learned in a lecture theatre.”
The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, which opened in 1972 and is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is situated in Barkley Sound within the traditional territories of the Huu-ay-aht First Nations.
The centre provides year-round facilities and equipment including fresh and saltwater aquariums, divers and a fleet of vessels, allowing students and researchers safe, supported access to unique coastal, marine and rainforest environments.
'There was so much energy from the ocean and being around wonderful colleagues and students and having just spent the most remarkable day in the most beautiful place on earth.'
Heather Alexander, University Programs Coordinator and Communications Manager at the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre
“Right now, I’m coordinating university courses, so I have 24 fall students that have been here for a couple of weeks,” says Alexander. “I take them out on field trips. I’m the boat driver, so I take two skiff loads of students and transport them out to the Deer Group islands and that’s a really great day when we get to do that.”
Students hike to local beaches, or are ferried to local islands, to examine tidepools and do transect studies of the shore, looking at seaweeds and invertebrates. They sleep four to six people in a cabin, eat together in a cafeteria and go camping and exploring on weekends.
The BMSC is open to SFU faculty and students to participate in research, undergraduate and graduate-level courses, workshops and field trips.
“We have a cheesy saying that Bamfield is a lifechanging experience,” says Alexander, who works in the dual role of university programs coordinator and as communications manager for the centre. “It definitely was for me.”
Following that initial six-week course in 1988, Alexander moved her family to Bamfield where she finished her undergrad (UVic) and her master’s degree (University of Calgary). At the time, Bamfield had about 180 full-time residents, including about 30 people who worked at the centre.
Growing up in a military family, Alexander says she bounced around every two years, mostly in Canada (Halifax, Victoria, Chilliwack), but with a stint in Scotland. She was happy to land somewhere and stay put.
However, when her boys were teens, the family relocated so they could finish high school. Moving to Vancouver for a couple of years, Alexander began her PhD at SFU, studying evolutionary biology, under Felix Breden (now professor emeritus). She did most of her research at SFU, returning to Bamfield to write her thesis and resume working at the centre. Following the completion of her PhD, she spent 10 years working out of the BMSC as a research associate with Brad Anholt, UVIC, studying sex determination in tidepool copepods.
Now, in her current dual role, Alexander collaborates with the partner universities to co-ordinate courses and takes students on field trips. She also runs communications for the centre, managing the website and organizing content for the BMSC’s 50th anniversary.
During her time in Bamfield, she has experienced changes at the centre and in the town itself, including a “devastating” population dip about two decades ago.
The town’s fortunes began to turn around, Alexander says, beginning with the signing of the Maa-nulth Final Agreement in 2011. The Huu-ay-aht First Nation is flourishing, she adds, there’s pride in the community, businesses are re-starting, and younger people are moving into town. As well, the 85-kilometre gravel logging road from Port Alberni is being upgraded.
Alexander says there have been many great moments over the years, but one golden memory sticks out, returning from the Broken Group Islands in a storm.
“We’d just been to the Great Tide Pool, and it was storming – crazy wind and sideways rain,” Alexander says. “Big waves were crashing over the bow, but we were all completely oblivious, sitting on the back of the boat singing the theme from Gilligan’s Island.
“It was just really such a joyful experience: There was so much energy from the ocean and being around wonderful colleagues and students and having just spent the most remarkable day in the most beautiful place on earth.”
This is a story in our People of SFU series, where we’re celebrating SFU’s unsung heroes—those who go above and beyond the call of duty to create community, advance SFU’s mission and make the university a great place to work and learn. You can read more stories here.