From our iconic beluga whales to newer additions, such as Chester, the false killer whale, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre has been lucky to host many memorable mammals over the years.
Likewise, we’ve been blessed to have a team of remarkable humans who have made vital contributions to our legacy of marine conservation, research and education in our near-60-year history. And if you ask almost anyone on our marine mammal care team, one person really stands out: Dr. David Huff.
Dr. Dave, as he’s more commonly known, was honoured last week with a Special Recognition Award at our Coastal Ocean Awards for his extraordinary commitment to veterinary care at Vancouver Aquarium.
A practicing veterinarian for more than 35 years, Huff spent 30 of those years at Vancouver Aquarium. He first joined the organization as a part-time volunteer in our Amazon Gallery in the 1980s and eventually became our primary consulting veterinarian, a post he held until his retirement from the Aquarium a few years ago.
During his tenure, Huff led the Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation of countless marine mammals, including treating oiled sea otters injured in the 1988 Exxon Valdez oil spill and the remarkable rescue of Springer, an orphaned northern resident killer whale who was reunited with her pod, thanks to the efforts of the Aquarium team as well as other collaborators.
But beyond his heroic efforts to ensure animals in our care and in the wild were given the best possible care, Huff is also beloved by Aquarium staff for his good nature, his mentorship and his humility — which was evident in his reaction to receiving the award.
“That’s always a bit humbling when it’s your colleagues,” he told the Vancouver Aquarium. “It’s better than any other award you can get.”
Perhaps the accolade is even more remarkable considering Huff never set out to become an expert in marine mammal care, but rather fell into the field by accident. After growing up in southern Ontario, Huff began his career by taking care of conventional cats and dogs, but his life took a twist after he moved to Vancouver in the 1970s and began donating time to treat eagles, owls and other injured birds of prey. When he started treating parrots, people started bringing him all manner of exotic animals, such as snakes and lizards. “It’s a natural progression,” he said.
In between all that, he started treating the dog of the Aquarium’s former curator and was asked to lend his expertise to the animals in our Amazon habitat.
But of all the amazing creatures Huff was able to treat over the years, he doesn’t bat an eye when asked which one is the most memorable: “Springer. Period. That’s an easy question.”
The juvenile killer whale made headlines in 2002 after her mother died and she became separated from her pod, normally found in the waters of northern B.C. When Springer turned up in Puget Sound, Wash., sick and alone, Huff helped lead the international effort to save her. The Vancouver Aquarium team first lured her into a net pen to allow her to regain her strength before transporting her back to northern B.C. where she became the only killer whale to ever be successfully reunited with her pod. In 2013 Springer gave birth to her own calf, named Spirit.
“There are so few times in your life when you’re involved in something like that, when nothing goes wrong, everything goes right,” Huff recalled. “It was a perfect situation.”
For the staff and volunteers who had a chance to work with Huff, it also feels rather perfect that he’s been honoured for his work. Many of his former colleagues outlined in their nomination letters the ways in which Huff led by example, putting animal welfare first while guiding the team through long hours, lengthy rescues, and standing beside them through painful losses and celebrated victories.
“All of that I could literally throw right back at them,” Huff responded with his characteristic humility. “I’ve never seen people like the vets, technicians and trainers at the Aquarium. They never look at the clock or the hardship from them, they just do what’s best for the animals, that’s what these people do.”
Indeed, Dr. Huff, and that’s in no small part thanks to the leadership and legacy of people like you.