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Inspired by the Salish sea

Sidney's new marine centre focuses on West Coast waters and people

Who would have thought an aquarium could be a bridge? But that's exactly what the new marine centre in Sidney is designed to be.

"We want to build a bridge between this community and the Salish sea," said Angus Matthews, using the First Nations' name for Georgia basin, and waters flowing from Campbell River to Race Rocks.

Matthews is executive director of the new, 10,000-square-foot Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre that opens June 20 at the foot of Beacon Avenue.

It will feature an aquarium and education centre, exhibit areas, multi-media lecture theatre and classrooms. It is also designed to be energy efficient with the ocean acting as a heat sink.

The centre's first bridge is a "virtual' elevator that transports visitors from the world of dry land to the depths below.

A submarine-style bulkhead opens into a chamber where guests "descend," thanks to bubble effects, the sounds of creaking and groaning, a low-frequency vibration and flat screen television on the ceiling that shows water flooding over it.

"We're trying to get away from the art gallery idea and give visitors a total immersion experience," said Matthews, who started his career as a whale trainer with Oak Bay Marine Group and spent the last 12 years as director of administration and finance at Pearson College of the Pacific.

"This is a small aquarium with huge ideas."

Besides introducing people to the magnificence and wonder of the sea, the museum team has gone off the deep end with art. Rick Silas is creating a glass kelp sculpture for the lobby; Bruce Obee is preparing photos, interpretive materials and Oceaneer (volunteer) handbooks; Speedpro Signs is making giant ocean-scene wallpaper; print artist Charles Elliott is creating Salish images of marine life; and Sandra Ritter, formerly with the Royal B.C. Museum, is faux painting a mock jetty and other areas.

Sidney's Blackline Marine has moulded a fibreglass touch pool that will be a bridge between the building and the waterfront, connecting with another outside but separated by glass.

The project has an elegantly simple storyline: from sea floor to sea shore.

Visitors enter through a giant wall that holds back the ocean, take the descending elevator, move through the aquarium and exhibits, and emerge under "faux" pilings, to see spectacular sea views and a touch pool, where hands-on learning takes place.

"The whole process has been collaborative and creative, involving artists, donors, technicians, staff who all lent ideas and were incredibly involved," said Lynda Farmer, who co-chaired the successful $5-million fundraising campaign with husband and University of Victoria chancellor Murray Farmer.

"Those of us close to the project believe it is something really special -- especially given its mandate as an ocean discovery centre and its stunning location."

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Opens: June 20

Hours: Open every day

10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until June 30

10 a.m. to 8 p.m. , July 1 to August 31


Adults, $12; children six to 17; $6;

five and under, free; season's pass, $10 more

Note: Wheelchair accessible