The Whale Years
In 2006, with my freshly minted BSc. in hand, I moved to Victoria on Vancouver Island to work as an onboard Marine Naturalist for a whale watch company. I could hardly believe it was actually my job to hangout on deck and share my passion for the natural history of marine wildlife with people. I memorized the names and stories of individual killer whales in our waters. I learned to recognize the unique swoop of their saddle patch. I came to know their families. I got to see with my own eyes our coastal ecosystems in action. But the biggest lesson I learned was how to connect with passengers and to be the link between the wildlife and ecosystems of the Salish Sea. I learned that if I spoke authentically, my passion for the animals shone through and resonated. For some folks, the experience could one so powerful it could change the way they made decisions in their own life.
I learned to let people spot animals for themselves. I’d tell them what to look for. What to expect. I’d let them know whales had been reported in the area and encourage everyone to help out with scanning. I learned that if I started by pointed out the whales, the passengers would rely on me. I preferred to let people to see for themselves. It built excitement – there’s nothing better than the first shout of “WHALE!!” I learned it was better to let folks train their own eyes to spot the whales. To learn to scan the horizon, training the eye to focus on the empty spaces between the islands, the driftwood, to relax the eye and wait for what lies beneath to rise up.
I’d share the facts I’d read – things we’d learned about the whales by studying them in captivity – examining their pieces under a microscope.- tracking their patterns with electronic tags/computer chips. People like numbers, stats, facts. Then, I’d tell the stories. I’d tell of the special moments I’d witnessed. I’d tell the stories I’d read. I’d share the tales I’d heard over a post-trip pint. Stories that demonstrated their intelligence. Their family bonds. Their wildness.
As with all things in life, there was another side to the work. Tourists complaining about every possible thing. Asking for more hot chocolate right as superpod (a family of whales) swims right past our boat. It was frustrating. Some folks were just out there for the photo opportunity. The frustration came from seeing something that I was so passionate about being treated as a commodity, a show, an activity. I came to realize this was a dream job, it just wasn’t my dream job. Here’s the thing – I know killer whales / the orca are the big sexy mega fauna of the pnw – but theres so much more to see here – theres an entire ecosystem (they are the spokesanimals for the ecosystem – save the whales save the world) out there to see – theres the history of the area. So much more to connect with.
I know, for many, seeing whales in the wild is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It was my hope that it might change a couple lives too. That maybe there might be a pause, a better choice made. A thought for the whales, and for a better home for us all.
Much of the inspiration I do today stems from that time in my life. From the wildlife I saw, the untouched forests, the impact our human needs have on the earth, the theories I studied in school, the conversations I had with friends and passengers on deck. The animals or trees I choose to depict in a piece is often representative of an actual event, concept or individual. I’m still learning how to put words to all my thoughts that go into my work.
The combination of my seatime hours and proven skill at identifying marine mammals and birds in the wild, and my connections in the industry lead to some amazing field work opportunities. These are the things I remember:
- living onboard a ship 100 nautical miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, rotating 6 weeks on, 6 off, spending 12 hours a day scanning the waves for indicators of mammalian life
- On Christmas Day a flock of 100 brown pelicans flew across our bow
- a full grown whale shark feeding on bait fish – something right out of Attenborough’s Blue Planet.
- seeing the shockwave of a fighter jet as it went supersonic.
- seeing the flames from oil rigs sprinkled across the horizon.
- thinking about the impact humans have on the planet. This was before the BP oil spill. Big oil is a huge industry and it seemed to be only a matter of time before something like that happened. The human factor is something that is impossible to control. Seeing the extent of the oil industry there, the damage the spill did makes me think of our convoluted coastline and the impact a major spill would have here. On both wild lives and our human lives.
- trading the comfort of my little apartment for the cramped quarters of a crew berth on an 80 year old tall ship, bound for Haida Gwaii
- witnessing the morning mist lifting from the water, illuminated by the rising sun
- lighting the lantern every night at anchor
- 11pm sunsets
- walking barefoot through the forest, the hummus of the forest floor cushioning my footfalls, making it easy to move quietly, black mud between my toes, tannin-rich water soaking into my cuticles
- the totems, magnificent towers of art
- Thinking about Emily Carr. I thought about the lost history.
- practicing yoga on the beach, amongst the driftwood as two humpbacks slowly swam by
It was eye opening to meet so many different people for different cultures with different values. I spoke with folks who thought we fed the whales. Those who thought the whales ate too many of our fish. I met a couple who kept a very famous whale in a pool in their backyard (and who couldn’t comprehend why they were not legally allowed to do so again). I spoke with fishermen and logging families who rely on the rich natural resources of our province to put food on their tables. I saw the human side of the coast. The connection we all feel to this place we call home.
The Art Years
The University Years