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Sidney's Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre

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By Jack Christie, Photography by Louise Christie

If there's an award for B.C.'s best marine tourist attraction, Sidney's Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre is a shoo-in-except for one thing. Although displaying the patina of an art gallery, the Vancouver Island town's recently completed focal point isn't technically a tourist attraction at all.

As the centre's development and special-events director, Joan Eaglesham, explained to Pique , "Our mission is to be an environmental-education centre to treasure and protect the ocean."

From her desk in the Ocean's Heartbeat classroom-laboratory, educational director Linda Funk offered further clarification: "You won't love it unless you understand it."

The "it" in question is a portion of the Salish Sea-the Strait of Georgia-bordering the Saanich Peninsula and the southern tip of Vancouver Island, between Sooke and Salt Spring Island, an easily accessible, scenic coastline seemingly designed with day trips in mind. Couple the magic of shoreline exploration with a growing curiosity about what goes on beneath the surface of B.C.'s marine environment and you've got a hit. Since opening in June 2009, the centre has had a tsunami of visitors pour through the glass-panel doors, designed to mimic a kelp bed.

Sidney and its environs have long been hubs of interest in the life below the waters of the Georgia Basin, an inland sea stretching from the south end of Puget Sound to Desolation Sound at the north end of the Malaspina Peninsula on the Sunshine Coast. Bert Webber, a retired Bellingham biologist, first dubbed this body the Salish Sea in 1989.

The $8 million facility-owned and funded by the nonprofit New Marine Centre Society-is the gifted offspring of two humble-but-proud facilities that once anchored the waterfront: the Sidney Marine Mammal Museum, which opened in the 1980s, and the Marine Ecology Centre, which relocated there from its original home in Cowichan Bay in 2001.

Talk about a kid magnet. This high-tech space is not a place where parents have to ask their children twice if they're interested in exploring for an hour or two. There are 17 habitat tanks full of marine life on display, and the Centre's theme shows change every two weeks, in part to cater to a growing list of annual pass holders and also because staff want to demystify the underwater world just metres away in the coves that indent Sidney's coast. Early on weekend mornings, children line up in front of the Centre's massive curved elevator door, seemingly designed to mimic the airlock to Captain Nemo's submarine in Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. As the elevator slowly descends, video projections on the walls and ceiling give the impression of being transported beneath the waves. On arrival, the sensation is like stepping onto the ocean floor. In addition to saltwater tanks filled with marine life, real-time scenes broadcast from a Web cam positioned beneath Bevan Pier adjacent the centre play across a wall-sized Smart Board.

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