A Brief History of the Not-For-Profit Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre
Marine Ecology Centre
Dr. Bill Austin had a dream to create a facility where anyone could go to learn about what’s in the ocean. The Marine Ecology Centre opened in Cowichan Bay in 1991 as a non-profit organization run by the Friends of the Marine Ecology Centre.
The Marine Ecology Centre (MEC) was supported by the Friends of MEC, the local community, individual donors & corporate sponsors. The Centre operated year round with educational programs for schools, colleges & universities as well as for other community organizations. MEC was also open to the public for general viewing.
In April 2001, MEC packed its bags and floated down to the Port of Sidney marina, where Bill and his team spent the next eight years hosting the general public, school programs, summer camps and educational programs for any groups that were interested. Bill Austin later served as Advisor Emeritus during the development of the new centre. Paula Romagosa, a key staff member at MEC now serves as our Head Aquarist.
Sidney Marine Mammal Museum
In 1990, at the foot of Beacon Ave in the historic customs house building, the Sidney Historical Museum opened with the Marine Mammal wing built next to it. Both parts of the museum operated under one management, the first curator and director Mr. Calvor Palmateer.
The Marine Mammal exhibits traced the biology and evolution of cetaceans and pinnipeds. A highlight of the exhibits was the murals gracing the ceilings/walls of the museum. The non-profit group, Friends of the Sidney Museum and many volunteers supported the operations of the museum. Many of our programs in use today are adapted from the school programs and puppet shows that were performed by volunteers over the years. Beth Watkins, Kendra Fowler, Mikes Patterson, Marlies Westlake and others were volunteers at the museum before becoming Oceaneers.
As the MEC rapidly outgrew its small one-room facility, the Sidney Marine Mammal Museum (Whale Museum) decided it was in need of a new facility as well. It was decided to create a new organization to establish one new and larger centre, where people could come to learn about whales as well as other marine animals and habitats. And so the idea for the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre was born.
In 2004, planning started for the “New Marine Centre at Sidney”. The Town of Sidney became very much involved, and in 2005, with the support of Marker Developments secured ownership of 10,000 square feet of purpose-built space on the ground floor of the new Sidney Pier building. This breathtaking waterfront space would become the home of our centre. Construction of the Sidney Pier building and the shell of our new home started in 2005 and was completed in May of 2007.
When the museum closed in 2005, some items were placed in storage and some were placed on temporary display at the Institute of Ocean Sciences at Pat Bay.
The New Marine Centre Society was formed to design, finance, build and operate the new facility. The original volunteer board was made up of members from both the Sidney Whale Museum and Marine Ecology Centre Boards. Angus Matthews was hired as the founding Executive Director on January 1 of 2006. From the outset it was agreed the Centre would be of exceptional quality and focused entirely on the local waters of the Salish Sea. To accomplish this, it was understood that a major investment in equipment and exhibits would be required. Most of all, sufficient funding would be needed to make all this possible.
Once the vision and design concept for the new centre were developed and approved by the Board, the “Discover Your Ocean” Campaign was launched in September of 2006. Led by volunteer co-Chairs Lynda and Murray Farmer and supported by a Campaign Cabinet of leading citizens in the community, an ambitious goal of $5 Million was set.
Over the next 16 months, the community demonstrated very generous support for the concept. During the course of the campaign, private donations from individuals totaled $1.5 Million. The team was also successful in obtaining a further $2 Million from the Canada/BC Infrastructure Fund. The final piece of the financial puzzle was our largest single private donation, $1.5 Million from Shaw Communications. To complete the entire picture of community involvement and cooperation, the Town leased the building space to the New Marine Centre Society for the modest rent of $5.00 for twenty years with an option for renewal.
On August 12, 2008 construction began to install our facility inside the empty shell of the completed building. Mike Lewis led our own crew and supporting contractors to build the centre at a breakneck pace. From zero to finished in 318 days was an amazing accomplishment. The centre had a test run on Friday June 19, 2009 with our newly minted Oceaneers and opened to the public precisely on time and on budget on June 20th.
Opening day was an exhilarating experience for everyone involved and the 2,000 spectators. Dedicated by the Coast Salish, inspired by special guest Celine Cousteau and officially opened with Mayor Cross, Gary Lunn, Murray Coell and Board Chair Peter Lloyd cutting the kelp ribbon, it was a proud day.