The Pacific Biological Station as it looked in its earliest days circa 1908.

Timeless tales: Biological station was ahead of its time

Rev. George William Taylor was responsible for securing funds for facility, built in 1908

People have gazed at Nanaimo’s ocean since time immemorial, but it wasn’t until the Pacific Biological Station was built that people really started looking closely.

The research facility at Departure Bay has been in operation since 1908 and is designated as a site of national historical significance.

Its beginnings were humble – a formal grand opening was scuttled, reported the Nanaimo Daily Free Press in June 1908, because B.C.’s lieutenant-governor James Dunsmuir was out of province at the time.

The facility came to Departure Bay largely due to the efforts of Rev. George William Taylor. He was born in Derby, England in 1851, according to his 1912 obituary in the Free Press, and lived in Victoria and Ottawa before becoming incumbent of Nanaimo’s St. Alban the Martyr Parish. He began his scientific studies on Gabriola Island and after a series of letters to the Biological Board of Canada, convinced government of the need for a West Coast facility. According to the Nanaimo Times, in April 1907, Parliament approved $15,000 funding for the project.

A Nanaimo location was first considered, but Dunsmuir helped make some of his coal company’s land at Departure Bay available. It was a safe harbour and after all, as the Times reported, the site was just four and a half miles away by narrow, bumpy dirt road.

“The locality is an ideal one and it would be hard to find any spot in British Columbia, or indeed anywhere else more suited for a site for such an institution,” noted the Free Press, adding that the building was “as well-suited for its purpose as any similar institution in the world.”

The laboratory could accommodate eight scientists, and there was also an office, storage space, library, photographic room and dining room and four bedrooms upstairs for visiting scientists. A kitchen and caretaker’s apartment were in a separate building and there was also a stall, woodshed, boathouse and engine house on the grounds.

Taylor became the first director and the sole employee, working with volunteers during his tenure.

The priority was researching subjects of value to commercial fisheries, but it was recognized that the teeming seas held no end of possibilities for study. The Free Press reported that “no less than 150 species, many of them new, were found in the 7,000 specimens” in one day’s dredging at Departure Bay.

“Mr. Taylor said that it was not to be, as some people supposed, a fish-breeding establishment, nor was it to be merely a museum, but it is to be a workshop in which all the various problems connected with marine life – whether economic or purely scientific – will be studied, and if possible, solved.”

One of the first guest scientists at the station was McLean Fraser, who had spent several seasons at Canada’s first marine biological station at St. Andrews, N.B., and the Free Press suggested that “all will be anxious to hear his report when he has compared the two oceans.”

Fraser would go on to be the Pacific Biological Station’s second director after Taylor’s death, attributed in his obituary to “paralysis.” The first director was remembered as “a scientist of no mean attainment … He held a high reputation, and to his labours Nanaimo owes a splendid collection of shells now on exhibition.”

And a biological station that has offered a close look at the ocean, now, for more than a century.

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