Summer after summer, tourists and locals alike flock to coastal B.C. for the chance to glimpse killer whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, humpback whales and other marine mammals in their natural environment. But our iconic wildlife weren’t always treated with such reverence.

Back in the early days of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, little was understood about the magnificent creatures that frequent our coastal waters. Killer whales were often feared and demonized, while humpback whales had been hunted to near extinction. Changing the public’s perception of wild whales — and getting the public involved in their conservation — has been at the forefront of the Vancouver Aquarium’s mission for its 60-year history. And it’s formed the basis of John Ford’s career.

As head of the cetacean research program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Ford leads a team dedicated to conducting field research on whale species at risk found on the west coast, including killer whales, blue, fin, and humpback whales. It’s a big job, and certainly a long way from where he started: as a floor sweeper at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1973.

John Ford doing an acoustic study in 1987. Photo credit: Jeff Foott

John Ford during an acoustic study in 1987. Photo credit: Jeff Foott

The gig was Ford’s first official job at the Aquarium, but his connection to the organization started much earlier. In fact, marine science was something of a family affair for the Fords. John’s mother, Suzette Ford, was a volunteer docent for the Aquarium in the 1960s and 1970s, and eventually spearheaded the Aquarium’s membership program. (Mother and son even worked at the Aquarium together for a period of time.) Ford’s early introduction to the Aquarium whet his appetite for marine biology, and he soon went from sweeping floors to working with the belugas, seals and killer whales that were then on display.

Ford’s first taste of field science occurred in the summer of 1975 when the Vancouver Aquarium’s founding director Dr. Murray A. Newman invited him to join an expedition to the high Arctic. He was given the title of expedition scientist. “That was amusing to me because I was only 20 years old,” Ford recalls with a laugh.

The voyage ended up being a pivotal experience for the budding scientist, who recorded narwhal vocalizations on the expedition. Inspired, Ford went on to write his bachelor’s thesis on whale vocalizations at the University of British Columbia. A master’s degree followed and then a PhD, partially funded by the Aquarium, saw him narrow his focus on killer whale research.

Photo of a Pacific white-sided dolphin taken by John Ford during his research.

Photo of Pacific white-sided dolphins taken by John Ford during his research.

In 1988 Ford returned to the Aquarium as curator of marine mammals, leading the Aquarium’s efforts to demystify whales and dolphins to the public. “It was part of an overall evolution of the approach the Aquarium was taking, really leading the way in presenting whales in a more natural context,” says Ford. “It started with the development of a more naturalistic habitat that was made to look like the Gulf Islands, and there was a change in going away from displaying the whales doing tricks for fish to displaying more natural behaviours.”

The intention was to connect the dots for visitors that the animals they saw in the Aquarium were the very same creatures in the wild, and that they were in need of protection and respect. “I think the Vancouver Aquarium was ahead of its time in a sense,” he says. “During the 80s and 90s it was rare to portray the real animal, not a caricature of it.”

Having spent years researching killer whales in the wild, Ford’s heart remained in field work and it was only a matter of time until he returned to his roots as a researcher. By the early 1990s, Ford had convinced Newman and other senior staff at the Aquarium to start a research program on wild whales as a natural extension of the conservation mandate. The Vancouver Aquarium’s Cetacean Research Program was born.

John Ford also began the Vancouver Aquarium's wild killer whale adoption program.

John Ford also began the Vancouver Aquarium’s wild killer whale adoption program.

With Ford at the helm, the Aquarium’s research and conservation program grew steadily, giving rise to many programs it continues to grow today. When Parks Canada contributed funding for an Aquarium-led survey of cetaceans in Gwaii Haanas National Park on B.C.’s north coast, Ford’s team put together sightings forms that the public could fill out. The information received was invaluable, and led to the creation of the B.C. Cetaceans Sightings Network, which today plays a vital role in tracking and monitoring populations of whales. “It’s done a lot to help fill in gaps for areas where we didn’t have a lot of organized records,” says Ford, who also began the Vancouver Aquarium’s wild killer whale adoption program – a program that continues to help fund the Aquarium’s wild killer whale research initiative.

Ford still relies on the ongoing and expanding efforts of the Aquarium’s research and conservation programs to complement his work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. In particular, the Aquarium’s outreach capacity is integral to educating the public, he says. “That isn’t something the DFO has the capacity to do.”

With the world’s oceans increasingly under pressure, Ford says the Vancouver Aquarium’s public outreach programs are more important than ever. “My hope is that it continues and even expands, because there’s lots of work to do out here.”

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.

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