When you’ve worked long enough at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, members become like a second set of co-workers. You see them often, remember where your last conversation left off, and catch them up on the latest shenanigans of their favourite animals. Every once in a while you meet members who really make an impression on you. Colleen, Riley and Evan were just such members.
Riley, his little brother Evan, and his mother Colleen have been members of the Vancouver Aquarium since Riley was one year old. It started out with Colleen looking for a place to spend quality time with her family. She, like many of us, grew up in Vancouver and remembers the Aquarium as the place she first met a killer whale, or first heard the roar of a sea lion. Colleen wanted her two young sons to grow up with an opportunity to see incredible marine life so prevalent on our shores and yet often inaccessible. Although it may have started with the simple purchase of a membership, their relationship with the Aquarium has grown in unexpected ways.
It first began when Riley, then eight years old, asked Lauren of interpretive delivery, a question after the beluga show. This began a series of conversations where Riley would talk to staff and volunteers, expanding his knowledge and love of marine mammals. Four years later, all these questions led him to an extraordinary opportunity. At 12, Riley entered into a mentorship program with Jenna, a marine mammal trainer who worked with the belugas.
For six months, Riley shadowed Jenna as she prepped food, cleaned and looked after belugas Qila and Aurora. Riley learned the rigors of looking after the largest of the marine mammals at the Aquarium, as well as the conservation efforts being made to save their wild counterparts in the Arctic and the St. Lawrence. His mentorship program led him to discussions with Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian, as well John Nightingale, the president of the Aquarium. At the end of his mentorship, Riley presented everything he learned to his school and to the staff and marine mammal team here at the Vancouver Aquarium.
This experience inspired the family to make a larger impact as volunteers. On weekends, Riley and Colleen take time to go to Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Colleen sees it as a valuable experience, not only because it teaches work ethic, compassion for other living things and how to connect with different generations, but it also has become a way for her to bond with her eldest son. Their work isn’t glamourous, more often than not they’re returning home covered in fish scales and smelling of herring, but their time together is meaningful, not only to themselves, but also to the hundreds of animals they care for during their volunteer shifts.
Riley’s compassion for marine animals reaches more than their immediate family. For his last birthday, he asked his friends to donate to the Aquarium in lieu of the regular gift-wrapped toys he would have received. He’s also adopted killer whales through Vancouver Aquarium’s Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program, sponsoring the continued conservation and study of local wild killer whale populations — one of which is highly endangered. For each step of the way, Colleen was there, not only to help facilitate these endeavours, but to also take on an active role as well. And now the youngest, Evan, is following in his brother’s footsteps, and eagerly awaiting the day he too can put on the blue, volunteer uniform and join them.
Colleen, Riley and Evan haven’t been members for long, not by Aquarium years, but their short time as members have made a powerful impact not only on the staff onsite, but on the animals they help and the people they talk to. Members are extraordinary like that. They recognize the value of their membership beyond that of the dollars saved and the discounts. They give back to this organization in ways that often surprise, and inspire all of us. It has helped us be a better Aquarium and a society for ocean conservation.