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Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy Area landscape, adjacent to the Hakai Beach Institute. (Gail Ross/BC Parks)
Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy Area landscape, adjacent to the Hakai Beach Institute. (Gail Ross/BC Parks)

The secret science lab on Calvert Island Add to ...

Eric Peterson is wound up and ready to pitch. With his laptop flipped open so he can reference details, the man who might be described as British Columbia’s biggest unknown philanthropist starts talking about his current passion – and doesn’t stop for an hour.

Mr. Peterson, a former research scientist at Harvard who made a fortune building and selling a medical imaging company, isn’t excited about an investment – but an idea.

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It’s an idea about the importance of science, particularly environmental science, into which he has quietly sunk about $70-million, founding and operating the Hakai Beach Institute, on B.C.’s Central Coast.

Mr. Peterson, together with his wife, Christina Munck, run the largely unknown institute on remote Calvert Island, about 60 kilometres south of Bella Bella, where they fund an extensive archeological program and long-term studies of marine and terrestrial ecology.

In 2002, after selling his Ontario-based company, Mitra Imaging Inc., he and Ms. Munck moved back to B.C. and set up the Tula Foundation, which spends about $2-million a year supporting health-care initiatives in Guatemala. Tula, which exclusively funds the Hakai Institute, also has given $7-million to establish the Centre for Microbial Diversity at the University of B.C., and $2.75-million to the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.

The institute operates on a site that once was a wilderness retreat and fishing lodge for the very rich.

“I used to hate that place,” said Mr. Peterson, who was born in Port Alberni and who has long travelled up and down the B.C. coast.

Located on a sheltered inlet near some of the most beautiful beaches on the West Coast, Hakai was for many years not a welcoming port of call.

“It was like a gated community. It was unfriendly. Kevin Costner came to visit. Rupert Murdoch came to visit … but local people were told to keep out. It was private and exclusive,” he said.

The Hakai luxury retreat went out of business, however, reopening as a fishing lodge, which also eventually failed.

That’s when Mr. Peterson and Ms. Munck saw an opportunity to open a research institute and centralize some of the ecological science programs they had been funding at universities.

“I was looking for a property to serve as a base, so we could get our coastal [research] projects working together. We were looking for an old fishing lodge or something,” he said, “and I realized Hakai was just about to go on the market, at a time of the real estate collapse.”

His entrepreneurial instincts told him to pounce – and two weeks later he owned the resort and 215 acres of land, all of which was surrounded by an extensive park conservancy.

The lodge, which has been updated with state-of-the-art power, water and sewage treatment plants, can house up to 100 people at a time. It is busy from March to November, usually with 50 to 75 staff, guests and visiting scientists.

Mr. Peterson said one of the first things he did after moving in was to mend fences – not physical ones, but the relationships with two local First Nations whose territories overlapped on Calvert Island and who could trace their presence in the area back 12,000 years.

They hadn’t felt welcome at the luxury resort either. Mr. Peterson has invited them back, involving them in research projects, including a major initiative that is looking at the archeological record of ancient village sites.

He also had to patch up relations with BC Parks, which had been in a running battle with a succession of former owners over access to the adjacent Hakai Luxvbalis Conservancy area.

Mr. Peterson said in the “gated community” days, Hakai restricted access to the only dock in the area, which meant the public couldn’t get to the famous white sand beaches in the conservancy.

Now there are welcome signs up and Mr. Peterson says he exchanges e-mails with BC Parks daily.

“We are the de facto park HQ,” he said.

Mr. Peterson to this point has not sought financial support from government, academic institutions or the private sector.

“So far we’ve been lazy and haven’t asked [anyone] to contribute,” said Mr. Peterson. “But we can’t complain because we haven’t done anything to raise our visibility.”

He says he’s going to do a better job of that – and that’s why he has finally started talking about it.

Follow on Twitter: @markhumeglobe

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