British Columbia

From Expo to exploration: McBarge to find a new purpose at sea

Vancouver’s McBarge, that long-neglected relic of Expo 86, may soon be setting sail for a new life as a deep sea museum and conservation centre.

Pair wants to convert former floating McDonald's into a 'Deep Ocean Discovery Centre'

The McBarge sat in Burrard Inlet until 2015. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Vancouver's McBarge, that long-neglected relic of Expo 86, may soon be setting sail for a new life as a deep sea museum and conservation centre.

The hulking 57-metre vessel has been sitting in a secure yard on the Fraser River in Maple Ridge for the last two years, having two decades' worth of graffiti and damage from illicit partiers wiped away.

The McBarge last saw legal visitors in 1986, during its famous stint as a McDonald's restaurant.

But owner Howard Meakin and diving industry pioneer Phil Nuytten want to open the hatches once again. They plan to transform the McBarge into the "Deep Ocean Discovery Centre," a floating display of vintage diving technology and interactive exhibits about the Pacific Ocean.

"We want people to love the ocean, and before you can love something, you have to know about it," Nuytten told CBC News.

An artist's drawing depicts Nuytten and Meakin's vision for the "Deep Ocean Discovery Centre." (Submitted)

One idea would see television screens connected to underwater cameras stationed in various locations around Metro Vancouver, so visitors can get a closer look at sponge reefs off Whytecliff Park or cruise ships travelling under Lions Gate Bridge.

The centre would also be home to Nuytten's vast collection of antique submersibles, diving suits and other equipment, as well as his company's atmospheric diving system the Newtsuit, and high-tech successor the Exosuit.

That collection features several groundbreaking pieces of equipment developed in British Columbia, including the Pisces-class submarines and Atlantis Submarines' tourist submersibles.

"It's very well known in the global underwater community, as we call ourselves, that B.C. is a sort of cutting edge technology centre, a mecca — but almost nobody in B.C. seems to know that," Nuytten said.

A drawing of an interactive exhibit planned for the Deep Ocean Discovery Centre. (Submitted)

Sophisticated Indigenous technology

But local innovations in underwater exploration began thousands of years before any Europeans set foot in North America, and Nuytten — who is Métis but was adopted into the Kwakiutl First Nation — is planning a strong focus on technologies used by coastal First Nations.

"It's surprising how sophisticated the stuff that they designed and built to do things underwater [was] — how sophisticated that is even compared to what we have today," he said.

One example of that technology is the tool developed by the Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island to harvest dentalium shells. These shells were used as currency across North America during pre-colonial times

The Nuu-chah-nulth's device allowed a harvester standing in a canoe on the water's surface to pluck one of the mollusks from the ocean floor, 10 or 20 metres below. Nuytten has built replicas of the tools that will be included in the centre.

The McBarge has been gutted to prepare for refitting. (Submitted)

'Top, top secret' location

Meakin, the McBarge's owner, said he thinks the centre will play a crucial role in education and conservation.

"We don't know much about the sub-sea, and the Pacific Ocean is critical for the sustainability of the planet and for an increasing population. We're going to have to rely on the ocean more than what we do now for food, for minerals, for energy and for water," he said.

First though, the pair needs to raise enough money to make their vision come to life. They've started crowdfunding and will host a "barge-warming" party on Oct. 21, when visitors will be able to tour the vessel, currently gutted and awaiting refurbishing.

As for the ultimate location of the centre, Meakin and Nuytten have a place in mind, but they won't reveal it.

It's "top, top secret," Meakin said.

With files from Cathy Kearney and Tina Lovgreen

The McBarge began as a McDonald's during Expo 86. (Submitted)