I probably would not be doing the work I love, today, if it were not for opportunities that inspired me to pursue my passion, and career, on and in the ocean. One such opportunity was a Marine Biology 10 class I attended in junior high school. As you can imagine, a marine biology course was very popular at the time and, therefore, only available to a limited number of students. So, while I was still in grade 9 I made a point of approaching the Marine Biology teacher, Ms. Furdal, early to express my interest in the course…and I was accepted to attend the class!
That Marine Biology 10 class was a wonderful experience and planted a seed in me to pursue work in marine biology and ocean research. Not only were the lessons interesting and fun but we were exposed to “real world” experiences in marine biology. We participated in an introductory scuba lesson in a swimming pool and went to local beaches to learn how to conduct beach surveys. We visited the Vancouver Aquarium where we experienced the behind-the-scenes operations and spent the night sleeping next to the beluga whale tank. I’m sure none of us slept a wink that night as we watched, through the floor to ceiling glass windows, the beluga whales swimming around gracefully all night. We weren’t the only ones doing the watching as they would occasionally swim by, approaching close to the glass windows, peering back at us!
The lessons I learned, and experiences I had, during that class led me to explore my options in marine science through the rest of my high school years. I took a Science and Technology track of courses in grades 11 and 12 which required me to do 40 hours of work experience. For my work experience I went back to the Vancouver Aquarium for one week to observe the day-to-day operations of the aquarium and ‘job shadow’ a lingcod researcher. I also followed the work of a marine naturalist on whale watching trips for an eco-tourism company based in Victoria. It was during these trips that I got hooked on observing and studying wild whales in the waters around southern Vancouver Island. Though those work experience placements were invaluable, Ms. Furdal’s grade 10 Marine Biology class gave me the initial spark to pursue those opportunities.
It’s wonderful to reflect on those first marine biology experiences and the many I’ve had in the ensuing 20+ years. Not long after finishing high school I obtained my Open Water and then Advanced Scuba certification; how lucky was I that my first open water dives were on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia! Additionally, through my work today, I often connect with marine mammal research colleagues at the Vancouver Aquarium. Many of these people include researchers who I looked up to when starting in the field of marine mammal science. I often shake my head in disbelief that these people are now my colleagues and I have the honour to work alongside them.
I’ve also been involved in beach surveys in other parts of the world. For example, I lived in Kenya working as a Marine Officer for Global Vision International’s (GVI) Marine Megafauna project from 2006 to 2007. As part of that work, my GVI colleagues and I attended the First Natural Geography In Shore Areas (NaGISA) training workshop in Mombasa. We learned the data collection procedures used to produce near-shore biodiversity baselines on global species distribution. One of NaGISA’s goals was to create accurate biodiversity estimates by producing species lists for near-shore sites around the world. During the field portion of the workshop we collected data on sea-grass distribution where we were based on Wasini Island, near Mombasa, Kenya. As ‘local’ participants, those of us from GVI provided vessel support for the workshop and used our vessels to transport workshop members to areas not easily accessible for data collection by foot. It was a wonderful experience learning from, and collaborating with, attendees of the workshop from all around the African region.
So, when a few years ago I noticed my former grade 10 Marine Biology teacher sitting near me at a local Victoria café, I decided I must re-introduce myself. I wanted her to know how her class had influenced and motivated me to follow my new-found passion in marine science. It was great to reconnect and she was happy to hear about my work since that class up to today. We discussed the idea that I do a presentation for her Marine Biology classes (which she is still teaching today!) about my work. Unfortunately, I was still working offshore overseas as a Marine Mammal Observer (MMO) and Passive Acoustic Monitor (PAM) at the time. Due to my unpredictable schedule and constant international travel we did not connect again to make it happen.
Fortunately, this past May we reconnected again and, now that I’m more settled with a more predictable schedule, we were able to set a date. The end of the school year was approaching quickly and her students would soon be out for summer so we decided that June 20, the second last day of classes before school let out for the summer, I would do a presentation for her students.
I really enjoyed visiting the high school and telling the students the story of my journey since attending Ms. Furdal’s Marine Biology 10 class way back in 1993. I told them about my work experiences at the Vancouver Aquarium, on the whale watching boats and volunteering with the Marine Mammal Research Group in Victoria, and encouraged them to seek similar opportunities to jump start their career path. I told them how volunteering led to landing my first job as a marine naturalist on whale watch boats which resulted in the opportunity to work at the Center For Whale Research. I told them about my adventures working on research projects overseas including with the Coastal Ecosystem Research Foundation in Mexico and Global Vision International in Kenya.
Of course, I also made a point of telling them about the realities of the work. That as glamorous and wonderful as the work sounds (think Jacques Cousteau and Blue Planet!) it will be difficult at times. Field work can be cold, wet, hot, dirty and make you seasick! That to be successful requires continuous dedication in spite of such challenges. That if they decide to pursue this work overseas they’ll have to learn foreign languages and adapt to different cultures and be away from the comfort of home and friends and family. However … the rewards, in terms of life experiences and opportunities, far outweigh the difficult times!
In addition to telling the students about the unique path I traveled to establish myself in this field, I recommended actions they can take, today, to help set out on their journey to become professional marine biologists. I provided them with a list of useful skills to start developing even while they are still in high school. I emphasised the importance of ongoing education to their success in this field. I told them that though there will be times when their studies will seem monotonous and irrelevant; the efforts they put in today will pay back in ways they can’t imagine later down the road.
I wanted to do this presentation for Ms. Furdal’s grade 9 Marine Biology students because I so clearly remember what it was like when I was in high school thinking about what lay ahead after graduation. I remember the pressure I felt to make a decision about university after high school. I remember the frustration that I hadn’t experienced enough of the ‘real world’ yet to decide what was next for me.
My career and education has not been a linear path. I did not start my undergraduate education until six months after graduating high school but was very fortunate in recognizing my career path not long after graduation. Though I figured this out fairly early, I still took time during my undergraduate studies to experience the ‘real’ world; to travel to Australia and Southeast Asia and then again to travel in Central America. When I finally finished my Bachelor’s degree, I waited another four years before starting my Masters. Now, more than 10 years after completing my Masters, I have even considered doing a PhD recently. Definitely not a standard academic path!
My hope is that I inspired at least one of Ms Furdal’s Marine Biology students and helped them understand that if they are passionate about what they want to do, whether in Marine Biology or another field, they can pursue their dream job and there is no set path as to how they do it. I also hope that my presentation helped alleviate any anxiety or stress they might have regarding making a decision for their next step in life.
In conclusion what are my main recommendations? Get out in the world and live life, cultivate skills, knowledge and connections relevant to your field and be patient. Be oh so patient and remember that, though it is a cliché, the journey truly is the destination!