By: Adam Warner

Research Scientist Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Conservation Research Program

“Hey guys, I checked on the -80°C freezer this morning and the alarm is beeping and the temperature is rising to room temperature. What should I do?”

Super low temperature freezers are important to keep lab samples safe from degradation, so this isn’t the type of email you want to see anytime, let alone during a pandemic! Unfortunately, that’s what happened last week when we got news that the freezer that stores our killer whale DNA samples in Alert Bay was toast. So what happens when a $10,000 freezer that is 7 hours and two islands away needs to be replaced as quickly as possible? First, you drop everything and scramble to come up with a plan. The precious DNA samples were put into a chest freezer to buy us a bit of time, and our director of marine mammal research, Lance Barrett-Lennard, worked the phones to quickly secure a -80°C freezer that I could bring up on a temporary basis (thanks Fisheries and Oceans Canada!). Next, I headed out to our lab for the first time in almost 2 months to get supplies for the trip. I found the office plant in pretty rough shape…

After giving the plant a quick water and gathering up supplies, the next step was figuring out how to bring the samples back to Vancouver. To keep the samples cold, a cooler with ice packs just doesn’t cut it. Luckily, a shop in Campbell River on Vancouver Island was happy to arrange a curbside pickup of dry ice for when I passed through the next day. All that was left was to set the alarm for 5:30 AM and get some sleep.

The next morning, I loaded up the new freezer and supplies and headed for the ferry from Tsawwassen to Nanaimo. On the ferry it was heartening to see the emotional messages of support for frontline workers like nurses, ferry workers, and grocery store employees. Our amazing staff at the aquarium, working hard to keep all of our animals safe, fed, and well cared for have our gratitude too.

I didn’t spot any whales from the ferry, but I did see this one as I drove up-island after a quick pickup of dry ice. Probably not the kind of whale sighting to report to our Whale Report Alert System run by the BC Cetacean Sightings Network…

Spotted near Port McNeill – a beautiful killer whale mural at a gas station

Four hours later, I pulled into Port McNeill to meet our colleague from Alert Bay. On the dock, the killer whale DNA samples were gently packed under the dry ice and freezers were exchanged. The new freezer was carefully stowed on the boat for the ride back to Alert Bay, ready for the collection of more samples.

Before heading back to Vancouver, there was one more stop to be made. The coordinator of our North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative had a special request. ”When you’re up in Port McNeill, do you mind picking up a sea lion skeleton for me?” Everyone is probably used to curbside pickups by now, but a sea lion skeleton is a bit unique!

By the time I rolled into Campbell River on the long trek home, I was getting hungry. On the menu – fish and chips, the best curbside pickup of the day. Best of all, the halibut was sustainably fished, Ocean Wise Seafood recommended, and delicious!

Ocean Wise Fish & Chips

After a ferry trip back to the mainland it was just one last stretch back to the lab. With the DNA samples now safely in the lab freezer there was one last thing to do – check on the plant that appeared completely dried out and dead before the trip.

Somehow in just a couple of days the plant had sprung back and was healthy. It looks a little different now, but it survived. We will too, as we continue to be kind, be calm, and be safe in the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry. Through all of this, we here at Ocean Wise Conservation Association continue our efforts to conserve and protect our oceans. Our work has not stopped, even as we adjust to working from home with new co-workers of the feline, canine and small human varieties. The outpouring of support for the Vancouver Aquarium from people in Vancouver, around BC, and from countries all over the world has been amazing and shows just how important our efforts are. We appreciate that, and we thank you.

To help us continue to weather the storm, there are some ways you can help. You can donate to the Vancouver Aquarium, or purchase a Whitecaps/Vancouver aquarium facemask. To directly support research (and help us with expenses related to our freezer break-down!) you can symbolically adopt a killer whale through our Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program. For more information, please visit

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One Response

  1. Drema

    What a terrible thing to happen but so thankful you guys secured a freezer and brought the samples back to Vancouver! Thanks for sharing the whole process.


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