Dino Lab Is Victoria B.C.’s Not-So-Secret Dinosaur Education Centre

Dino Lab evolves from private lab to public experience, merging education and entertainment.

This Zephyrosaurus, which is approximately 100 million years old, is the only mounted specimen of its kind in the world. Photo by Belle White.

Before Dino Lab became a public gallery and attraction, it was a private restoration lab, preparing fossils for display in museums around the world, such as the Royal Ontario Museum and Berlin’s Museum of Natural History. Whenever founders Terry Ciotka and Carly Burbank talked about their work on million-year-old dinosaur fossils, it generated a lot of excitement.

“When people found out, they wanted to come check it out,” Burbank says. “And then, of course, as soon as our children’s teachers found out what we did, they wanted us to speak to the classroom, and that would spread to other classes and even whole assemblies. It was becoming such a regular thing and just kept snowballing to the point we were getting nothing done. We realized that unless we made it part of the business, we’re going to have to stop doing it.”

Finding locally made products for the gift shop was a challenge. Photo by Belle White.

In July 2019, after three years operating as a preparation laboratory, Dino Lab “went public,” opening up an educational center and gift shop alongside their fossil restoration business.

The process was more challenging than expected. A sky-high commercial real estate market made finding a bigger space with enough parking impossible. Luckily, the landlords of Dino Lab’s existing building were able to give them more space — two extra bays — and Ciotka and Burbank made it work. When finding a builder proved difficult within the busy local construction industry, they did much of the renovation work themselves, along with a staff member who was a former contractor.

“It was it was a lot of overtime,” Burbank says. “But we were all pretty thrilled when it all came together.”

Timeless Techniques + Advanced Technology

The fossils that come to Dino Lab are usually found by oil and gas companies or are discovered on private land. (Their preparation is a specialized trade, and Dino Lab is one of the few places in North America that does it.) The fossils arrive at the centre encased in plaster field jackets, which Dino Lab removes before cleaning the specimens with their pneumatic tools.

Fossil restoration technician Robert Cookson uses a pneumatic tool to clean a fossil. Photo by Belle White.

“Then, basically, it’s just like putting a puzzle back together,” Burbank says. “We used to cast the missing pieces, but 3D technology has really come a long way. Now we’re able to do a 3D printing of the missing pieces and scale it to the size we need. It’s a big game changer.”

Crazy for Dinosaurs

Because of the space restrictions, Dino Lab’s 90-minute experience must be booked in advance. Visitors get a guided, personal tour of the fossil gallery with its dinosaurs, mineral specimens, meteorites and fluorescent minerals, along with 30 minutes of hands-on work helping to extract real dinosaur fossils in a specialized lab.

Unlike displays in many museums, visitors to Dino Lab are encouraged to get hands-on with certain fossils and even get to hold real dinosaur bones. Photo by Belle White.

“Attractions like Dino Lab are a cornerstone of the Greater Victoria visitor economy,” says Paul Nursey, CEO of Destination Greater Victoria.

“These businesses provide unique activities and experiences that are usually not found in other destinations. What’s more, they are often valued by the community of Greater Victoria. They are not just for our visitors but residents too.”

The founders initially thought they would see mostly children’s birthday parties, but the interest has come from a wide audience, with their booking site showing visitors from around the world.

“We’ve had a different demographic than initially anticipated,” Burbank says. “Adults are loving it and keep coming back. We’re getting resumés like crazy and people wanting to volunteer. It’s really taken off and made it all worth it.”

This article is from the February/March 2020 issue of Douglas.