Interview with a whale biologist
What's your favorite ocean animal and why?
This is a very challenging question. I don’t know how anyone really chooses a favourite when there is such an incredible diversity of weird and wonderful life in this world. I tend to be drawn to things that are very bizarre. The Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) is a great example. This strange looking animal is the heaviest of all the bony fishes and has a flattened body that is as tall as it is long. It was previously believed to be planktonic (meaning it couldn’t swim against the ocean currents) but recent research has shown they can actually swim up to 3.2km/hour. Woah! Slow down Ocean Sunfish! 😂
What's the weirdest sea creature, in your opinion, and why? (And do you have one at the Centre?)
One that comes to mind immediately is the Grunt Sculpin. This strange looking fish hops about on the ocean floor, looking like the most awkward, clumsy little creature. When you watch this fish, you just can't help but ask "how the heck do you exist?" The beautiful thing about nature though is that if you watch long enough, sometimes it all comes together. Grunt sculpins like to hang out in empty barnacle shells and when you see their strange, seemingly useless little fins sticking out of a barnacle, looking exactly like the barnacle's feeding apparatus or their odd pointed nose looking just like a closed up barnacle, it all starts to make a little more sense. We have many of these incredible little grunt sculpins here at the Centre and have even had great success with raising baby ones.
* Emma's note: new life goal: to see a baby grunt sculpin. *
If you won a free trip to scuba dive anywhere in the world, where would you go?
It might sound strange but if I could dive anywhere in the whole world, I’d choose right here off the coast of BC. Many people think you need to travel to tropical regions for the best scuba diving but the truth is, here in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Pacific Northwest, we have some of the most colourful and impressive underwater life. This area is home to some of the worlds largest species of fish and invertebrates including the Giant Pacific Octopus (which you can also see right here at the Centre 😉). For more on the diversity of life right here in the Pacific Northwest, check out this short video from The Marine Detective.
* Emma's note: I'm right here with you, Leah! I've dived in many tropical places, and BC continues to impress. *
You have a background in whale conservation. Tell me about your favorite whale.
Humpbacks are my favourite whale. Not because they are somehow better or more interesting than any other species, but because humpbacks are the whales that really sparked my curiosity and led me down the path of marine mammal conservation work. When I was completing my undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria, I had the good fortune to spend my summers working as a naturalist on a whale watching boat out of Telegraph Cove. At that time, we were really just starting to see the resurgence of humpback whales on the BC coast. Some colleagues and I began to study these whales to learn more about them and later we formed the MERS Marine Education & Research Society which has allowed us to continue this work.
If one legendary sea creature could become real, which one would you choose?
It might be a little cliché but I think I would choose a mermaid. Partly because most of the other legendary sea creatures are pretty terrifying, and partly because I'd like to be one. Of course the mermaids of ancient sea legends can be pretty terrifying themselves, summoning intense storms and luring sailors to their deaths. I love the idea of something like a mermaid existing. I'm not saying I believe in mermaids, but I do know that the ocean is a huge, largely unexplored realm and there is a lot about it we have yet to understand. We are still discovering new species of whales, so you just never know what else might be out there 🤔
What's your favorite ocean activity?
Oh boy. This is another really tough question. There are so many amazing activities designed to teach people about the oceans. Here at the Centre we have a wide variety of school programs for all age groups, each one full of interesting ocean-themed activities. Our “Feeding Frenzy” program geared towards children from kindergarten to grade 3, allows students to try eating like a sea star, a jelly or a limpet using a variety of props. One of my very favourite activities is our whale tail matching game, where kids and adults alike can try their hand at being a whale researcher and matching up tail photos from different individual humpback whales. It’s amazing to be able to share this aspect of whale research with people of all ages.
* Emma's note: I can't imagine what "eating like a sea star" looks like... yuck! *
Do you have a favorite ocean-themed fiction book?
Yes! My favourite ocean-themed fiction book is Christopher Moore's Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings. The book begins by following the lives of a group of whale researchers studying humpback whales in Hawaii. They are trying to figure out the meaning behind the song and it's a very believable account of the lives of those studying whales; that is until about mid-way through the book where it all gets a little sci-fi-wonky. You need to have a bit of a weird sense of humour to really get this book but I think most whale researchers have it. Most of my close friends and colleagues have read it several times and we refer to parts of it on a regular basis. It's kind of like that favourite movie that is so ludicrous the first time you watch it but the more times you see it the more hilarious it becomes. Fluke is my go-to gift for anyone new to the field of whale work.
* Emma's note: I haven't read Fluke (yet), but I love Christopher Moore! *
Thank you so much, Leah, for sharing with us your love of the ocean! For more information on the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, go to www.salishseacentre.org
For info on Free Dive, go to my website emmashelford.com. To read Free Dive, visit Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play, Kobo, or Nook.
8/15/2019 12:50:31 am
I wanted to be a biologist in the past, but I realized that it was not possible for me. Not only was I poor, but I am also not good enough for it. I though that if I work hard then I can compensate for my lack of intelligence, but I realized that it was not that easy. I am happy that you managed to be a biologist, please do contribute to society. I hope that you turn out to be a splendid biologist.
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