Ask Laurenne Schiller about her earliest memories, and she’ll tell you many of her most cherished ones were formed at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t come to the Aquarium, usually with my Nana,” she recalls. “I really just fell in love with everything to do with the ocean.”
Nothing captivated the young Laurenne more than the Aquarium’s beluga whales and her childhood excitement culminated with the birth of Qila, the first beluga calf conceived and born at a Canadian aquarium in 1995. “When Aurora was pregnant with Qila, I remember was so excited. I was seven and Aurora was seven so that was pretty special,” Laurenne says. “It was around then that I started sending cards for the whales.”
Throughout her childhood Laurenne celebrated nearly every occasion — Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and of course Qila’s birthday — by sending a card to the Aquarium containing some money for fish. Her passion for marine life caught the attention of Aquarium director John Nightingale, who responded to each and every card, and even invited Laurenne to meet Qila face-to-face — this was before beluga encounters at the Aquarium were available to the public.
More than just childhood infatuation, Laurenne credits her lifelong relationship with the Aquarium for sparking an interest in marine life that has only grown with time. After high school graduation (and posing for her grad pictures in front of the beluga habitat, naturally) Laurenne headed to the University of Guelph initially to study veterinary science. In 2009, she completed the first summer internship at the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Getting hands-on experience working with marine mammals was eye-opening in many ways. “It was the first time I got to go behind the scenes at the Aquarium for an extended period of time,” she says. “And I could see the care they provide for their animals is second to none.” But the experience also solidified Laurenne’s interest in contributing to marine conservation through research rather than animal husbandry. With a focus on global fisheries ecology and management, Laurenne went on to get a Master of Science degree in Zoology from the University of British Columbia in 2014. It wasn’t long before she was back at the Aquarium. This time in the newly created position of research analyst with our Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program.
In her current role, Laurenne is at the forefront of a growing movement to bring more attention to sustainability within the seafood industry by reviewing and assessing small-scale Canadian fisheries. “I really like the idea of growing the program more nationally, putting more of a focus on locality and working harder to connect the good-news fisheries stories within our own country to the public,” she says.
As awareness grows around the plight of the world’s oceans, Laurenne, now 27, says it’s more important than ever to provide a place where children like her can see first-hand the wonders that lie below the water’s surface. Particularly in a digital age where more and more children are disconnected from nature, she sees the profound impact of this kind of exposure every time she walks through the Aquarium’s galleries. “You put kids in an environment that’s stimulating and challenges how they see the world, and you just get these incredible reactions,” she says. “If there’s a facility that shows you: here’s a beluga whale, here’s the Arctic, and here are some species we might lose if we don’t take care of the planet — kids can make that connection and go on to be better stewards of the natural world.”
And if Laurenne is any indication, we’re in for a bright future of full of inspired young minds. This fall, she will begin work on her PhD at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Intrigued by what she has learned while at Ocean Wise, Laurenne plans to focus her research on public and private governance in tuna fisheries. “I’ve always known I want to be involved in some sort of work that helps us better understand and interact with the ocean,” she says. “Everything I’ve ever done, and will ever do, is linked to that first time I came to the Aquarium.”
Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is celebrating 60 years of ocean conservation with a series of stories that highlight its impact on the world around us. Better known for its conservation efforts, such as the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and Ocean Wise, Vancouver Aquarium also operates Canada’s only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, and has connected 42 million visitors to aquatic life since opening its doors in 1956. Join us as we explore six decades of milestones and look ahead to what’s needed to protect our world’s oceans.