Canada’s Arctic is one of the most remote places in the world, so most of us will never get a chance to go there. But John Fisher, a senior marine biologist at the Vancouver Aquarium, has been there – and isn’t even the first in his family to have travelled to the region.
His father, a marine biology professor at the University of British Columbia (who taught renowned killer whale scientists Michael Biggs and John Ford), conducted narwhal research there decades before. Forget the blood that binds these two together ‒ with all the time they’ve spent on, in, and near the ocean, it’s more likely that father and son have saltwater coursing through their veins.
John’s first taste of the Arctic was in the early ‘90s, around the time he started as a marine biologist at the Aquarium. He’s been there twice since, calling the region an “addictive” place to visit because of the novelty of its extremes.
On one hand, John describes it as a natural paradise where “killer” sunsets last for two to three hours and time seems to stand still. On the other hand, he says there’s a lot of hustle and bustle in the town of Iqaluit as researchers, explorers and business people move in, creating a frontier town-like buzz. He says, “It’s what I would imagine the Gold Rush to have been like.”
It’s a challenge to set up any kind of aquarium display, especially if you’re highlighting animals from the Arctic. There’s the question about financing the trip to one of the most remote corners of the Earth, collecting animals in difficult conditions, packing them appropriately for the long haul back to the Lower Mainland and lastly, wishing them well on the flight back to Vancouver from Resolute via Iqaluit – Ottawa – Edmonton. Whew… if only these animals collected air miles…
The real work starts once John is back from the Arctic. It’s a fine art to recreate Arctic conditions for the animals that live here. New water is added to the exhibits little by little to maintain the temperature at 1-3 ˚C (the water in the B.C. exhibits is 10 ˚C). Then there’s the issue of cleaning. John says he’s become creative with making his own cleaning tools so he can minimize the time his bare hands are immersed in frigid water.
When John started at the Aquarium, there was only one Arctic exhibit. Now, there are six of different sizes showcasing the diversity of the Arctic, including Arctic isopods, lumpfish and Arctic char, among other animals. He says he never could have imagined as a kid listening to his dad’s Arctic stories that his work would also one day take him to the northernmost edge of Canada. Like father, like son indeed.
Have you been to the Arctic? What were your impressions?