Making waves for 40 years

Dalhousie Oceans Week, June 1 to 8

- May 31, 2011

Dal researchers Sifford Pearre, Manu Raheja, Walton Watt and Peter Eaton at the Hayes Pit Cave circa 1966. Photo courtesy of Don Gordon.
Dal researchers Sifford Pearre, Manu Raheja, Walton Watt and Peter Eaton at the Hayes Pit Cave circa 1966. Photo courtesy of Don Gordon.

More than 80 alumni and friends of the Department of Oceanography are expected to gather at the University Pub on June 1 to celebrate 40 years of the Department of Oceanography at Dalhousie. The event is one of many that will take place over the eight days of Dalhousie Oceans Week, June 1 to 8.

The birth of modern oceanography can be traced back to the four-year Challenger Expedition in 1872. A scientific exercise, the HMS Challenger travelled nearly 70,000 nautical miles surveying, exploring and cataloguing more than 4,000 previously unknown species. Then, with the rise of Jacques Cousteau’s celebrity, and the invention of the aqua-lung in 1943, oceanography research accelerated. People suddenly understood what oceanography was and realized how little was known about the ocean.

Also in the 1940s, the federal government jumped on board and funded oceanography institutions at the University of British Columbia, Dalhousie University and McGill University. Oceanography research intensified at Dalhousie when the Institute of Oceanography was opened in 1959.

What's that smell?

Since then, oceanography research and facilities at Dalhousie have come a long way. Retired biological oceanographer Carl Boyd remembers a time when faculty members and students were spread across the Dunn, Chemistry and Forrest Buildings; from his office in the Forrest Building, he could often smell formaldehyde. “We shared space and a cold room with the (anatomy) morgue in the basement of the Forrest Building,” Dr. Boyd explained.

“We used to use five-gallon carboys of seawater that we carted from the Northwest Arm to the cold room for experiments,” said Dr. Boyd.  “This really limited the types of experiments we could do because we couldn’t control the environment.”

Don Gordon, emeritus scientist at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, fondley remembers studying in the Forrest Building. “Some of my best years were as a grad student in the Forrest Building. The research and people were great,” said Dr. Gordon. “We worked hard and played hard. There was a tightly knit social aspect.”

The institution’s team of researchers grew in all areas of oceanography — geological, physical, chemical and biological — over the next decade and were scattered across the campus. There was plenty of government funding to support the research being done by the faculty members and their students, but few places to do this work.

To improve research facilities and provide the faculty and students with more physical space, a new facility would be needed. Dr. Boyd was at the helm, steering the Life Science Centre and Aquatron project. Construction began in summer of 1969 and opened two years later. At the same time, with much work by then-Institute director Gordon Riley, the Department of Oceanography developed out of the institute, providing faculty and students with more independence.

“The thing that kept me going was the prospect of building the Aquatron and Life Sciences Centre,” said Dr. Boyd. “Putting together the Aquatron was a challenge and a lot of fun. It gave future researchers the opportunity to study oceanography in a state-of-the-art facility.”

The new facilities offered researchers the ability to mimic ecosystems in a controlled environment.

“We could get our feet wet, right at home, without having to travel to other institutions for research. The facility helped to attract great faculty and great researchers,” said Eric Mills, retired biological oceanographer, who joined the team in 1967 after he learned his supervisor, Gordon Riley from Yale University, was heading up the institution.  

Oceanography PhD student Jeff Barrel said the history of oceanography at Dalhousie speaks for itself. “The department is well regarded. There are a lot of faculty who have been here for a long time, completed good research and are happy to be here.”

Dr. Mills couldn’t agree more, “People come to Dalhousie to work and study with well regarded individuals. Having the ocean and facilities here make the choice even more attractive.”

Climate change

As climate change persists as a world issue, ocean research will continue to churn. The 40th anniversary celebrates the accomplishments in ocean research at Dalhousie so far and where it will go in the future.

“We need to get a better idea on how human activities affect the oceans, what changes are part of a natural cycle and what we have control over. That’s why oceanography research is important, “ says Dr. Gordon.

Drs. Boyd, Gordon and Mills are all looking forward to visiting with their colleagues and friends at Wednesday evening’s alumni reception. An early evening buffet — no seafood — will kick off the anniversary celebration and alumni gathering. The oceanography crew then plans to join speaker Larry Mayer, University of New Hampshire, at 7:30 p.m. for a public lecture in Ondaatje Hall (6135 University Ave.) to learn about new approaches to sea floor mapping. 


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