What it Means to be a Naturalist 

I grew up in the suburbs outside Toronto. The lake was close, but not that close. None of the locals would swim in it. Perhaps that’s why I chose to venture out west for University, where the ocean could be seen from campus. In search of summer work, I couldn’t help myself but yearn for a job on the water. When I heard back from a local whale watching company that I was hired as a naturalist I was ecstatic, but overcome with knots in my stomach as I sifted through pages upon pages of local marine guides of wildlife I had hardly myself laid eyes on. 

The trips depart from Granville Island, a tourist hotspot under the Burrard bridge that stretches across the inlet to the downtown core. Signs warning of seagulls sprout across the island, as unknowing tourists often have their lunches stolen from park benches as they snap photos of the marinas. 

Two training shifts and a Marine Emergency Duties course was all it took to lead the trips on my own as the sole naturalist aboard 20-30 passenger vessels. I will never forget the first trip I led. My first group of passengers struggled into puffy anti-exposure suits in anticipation of our voyage. We coasted across the water in search of whales on the horizon when the captain called me up to the bridge.  

“I am having a heart-attack,” he said. 

“A heart-attack?” I asked wide-eyed.

“I’m having a heart attack.” He chuckled a bit under his breath with a smile that said otherwise. “You are now in charge of everyone on this boat. What do you do?”

“Call for help,” relieved that it was only a drill. 

“Good. Where do you tell them you are?” 

I looked around at the islands but all the new names fogged together. 

“East of Galiano?” I guessed. 

“Wrong. You should be looking at the GPS. That’s what they’ll want to know.” 

We went through the rest of the procedure together.

The wildlife of the west coast attracts guests from around the world. Each trip is its own unique tale. Glimpses of humpback or grey whales as they surface backdropped by the coastal mountains, eagles calling from giant Douglas fir, and Steller sea lions sunbathing on rocks at high tide are just some of the wildlife found here. 

But one species I get asked about more than the rest: the Orca. 

What most people do not know is that the first orca captured and placed in captivity occurred off the coast of Vancouver. Orca’s were once feared as ravenous beasts of the ocean. In 1964 the owner of the Vancouver aquarium wanted a life size sculpture to put outside the entrance. He hired two men who camped at the tip of Saturna island, waiting for a pod to swim by so the artist could kill and reference the orca to create his sculpture. When the opportunity came they fired a harpoon that struck the back of a young Orca, only it was not a fatal blow. When they motored out to finish the job neither man could bring himself to do it. 

They traveled back to Vancouver with the harpoon embedded in the young whale like a dog on a leash. They named her Moby Doll. News spread and thousands of people flocked to the shore to witness an Orca up close. Moby doll did not live long in captivity, as it took many weeks to realize what we may now consider trivial facts such as how she (and all of the Southern Resident Orcas) only ate fish. Moby doll, who was later discovered to be a male Orca, spurred decades of research of these whales along the coast. Moby Doll is often referred to as the killer whale who changed the world. 

Through sustainable tourism operations, Vancouver now serves as a centerpiece to appreciate these animals in the wild. If anyone out there is yearning for a summer job spent on the coast, send in a message. If I can do it, so can you!

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