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.

Julie in action, conducting marine mammal research. Photo credit: Julie van der Hoop.

Julie in action, conducting marine mammal research. Photo credit: Julie van der Hoop.

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.

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2 Responses

  1. Dave van der Hoop

    Julie…Bonnie and I are so very proud of you and all the hard work and time you have put in to be where you are now and where you will be in the future!!

  2. zoe stewart

    If you ever need any volunteer help, I will be by your side, in the morning, evening,midnight, rain or shine.


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