In 1994, I would visit (killer whale) Bjossa every month or so. I would gaze at (beluga whales) Kavna and Allua for hours. Back then, I was a child, absolutely entranced by the natural wonders showcased at the Vancouver Aquarium. Now, I’m a marine mammalogist, completing my PhD at MIT and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
I don’t know when I decided that I wanted to study marine life, but it was clear from an early age. My interest in marine biology and ocean sciences became a career goal when I was in high school: this is what I wanted to spend my life studying.
I took the necessary courses and applied to specific college programs, but I wanted to gain experience. Where better than to go than back to the Aquarium, a place that had influenced my career goals?
First, I rotated through a high school work experience program, helping with gallery education, visitor information, and data entry. During a face-painting shift, a young girl made an atypical request: “I’d like a plecostomus on my cheek.”
I was used to drawing sea stars and dolphins, but as I drew my best bottom-feeding Loricariidae fish, she told me all about her aquariums at home and her goal of becoming a marine biologist. I realized that my role as a volunteer at the Aquarium wasn’t just to paint faces or give directions. I was there not only to learn and share, but to inspire and be inspired by the diversity of visitors I encountered.
During university, I kept volunteering during my summers at home. I helped research sustainable fisheries for the Aquarium’s Ocean Wise program and helped to bring the program eastward across Canada. I put in overnight hours as a beluga observer during Qila’s first pregnancy. I continued to interact with guests in the galleries and began to meet with board members as I assisted with the annual fundraising gala, Night at the Aquarium. I volunteered my time over many days and more than a few nights, but in return I gained experience, knowledge, and community.
Now, I study marine mammal physiology and energetics: how do dolphins and whales change their energy consumption and behaviours in response to drag – from becoming entangled in fishing gear or from wearing scientific instruments?
A few weeks ago, I came across a relevant journal article from the late 1980s: “Thermoregulation in beluga and killer whales.” Once again, the Aquarium was enriching my life and my education. I wasn’t standing, mesmerized by the moon jellies, nor was I trying to find the sloths in the Amazon rain forest. I was sitting in my office, 3,000 miles away, reading about (killer whales) Churchill, Hyak, and Finna, who’d inspired me to be where I am today.
Guest blog post by Julie van der Hoop, a marine mammalogist completing her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and former Vancouver Aquarium volunteer.