Let Me Tell You About My Boat

A few years ago, there was a campaign lead by Tourism Australia, promoting “the best job in the world,” something about being a glamorized janitor on an island in the Great Barrier Reef. I would argue they were completely wrong about it being the best job in the world. For the past three years, I’ve had the best job imaginable. It’s been like Sunday-night Costco-sampling – trying those tiny little pizzas, that posh trail mix that no one can afford, and, if you’re lucky, tasty Captain Highliner fish sticks.

Sitting atop the fiord wall over looking Pangnirtung, NU - August 2012.
Sitting atop the fiord wall over looking Pangnirtung, NU – August 2012.

There’s a famous scene in Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou where, using a full sized cross section, Bill Murray as Steve Zissou introduces his research boat the Belafonte – “Let me tell you about my boat”. In a similar fashion I figured it would be interesting to explain what I’ve done here for the past few years. In 2011, I made the jump from an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity working with marine mammals to a position that’s been more than I could have ever imagined.

Let me tell you about my job.

It’s generally a rather damp job; imagine being in a wetsuit for 12 hours. Sometimes, it can be cold… as in -60°c, though it can also be hot – ever been to Australia? It involves working in cramped spaces and being in awkward positions for long durations. It requires swimming and scuba diving with all types of animals. It’s not a nine to five job; some days begin at 7 am and end at 7 am. It involves operating snowmobiles, ATVs, kayaks and, occasionally, a camera or two. Basically, it’s a job that involves very long hours, last minute travel, getting disgustingly dirty, little recognition and a whole lot of fun.

 Taking photos in the very cold waters of the beluga habitat - August 2014. (photo: Meighan Makarchuk) Frozen nose and eyes in Gjoa Haven, NU - February 2013.Imaq the most awesome beluga whale i know.

The Vancouver Aquarium conducts world-renowned research and astounding conservation projects, though, for the most part, this work takes place behind the scenes or offsite, far from the public’s gaze. There’s no three o’clock false killer whale rescue show, no ten-thirty Pangnirtung Fiord beach walk, and no members-only Saturday morning Central Coast humpback whale survey. What I’ve done for the past three years is try to bring stories of conservation and research to the public’s attention. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the Aquarium is a non-profit organization that needs to create revenue to fund all the great work it does. This means that I’ve spent large amounts of time working to promote the organization as an attraction – not exactly exciting, but necessary nonetheless.

The number of unique places and bizarre things I’ve documented through the course of the past three years is staggering. For me there are two experiences that stand apart from the rest. The first took place on October 24th 2013 in Barkley Sound, where, for the first time in Canada, a sea lion entangled in marine debris was tranquilized and freed from the garbage around its neck. Documenting the entire process was like being a war zone journalist embedded with a platoon of elite fighters. When the trigger is pulled and the massive animal is sedated, everything suddenly becomes very real. Seeing the horrific trauma caused by a single piece of plastic really drives home the direct impact of human negligence. I can’t give enough praise to Martin Haulena, Wendy Szaniszlo and the rest of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue crew for their efforts – they are such a dedicated and passionate group of people.

A male California sea lion lays sedated on a log boom south of Comox, BC - March 2014.
A male California sea lion lays sedated on a log boom south of Comox, BC – March 2014.

The second incredibly inspiring experience took place on September 10th, 2013Roughly six months earlier, an adult male harbour porpoise was found stranded in Saanich Inlet and was brought to the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. The male porpoise, named Levi, underwent months of intense rehabilitation: twenty-four hour care, countless diagnostic procedures and creative physiotherapy. Finally, when he’d regained his strength and showed the ability to once again prey on live fish, he was deemed fit for release. On release day, two very dedicated Marine Mammal Rescue staff members guided Levi away from the boat, and, once at a safe distance, loosened their hold and let him slip away through the shimmering sun’s rays into the dark green waters of the Strait of Georgia.

After six months of rehabilitation, Levi the harbour porpoise is released into the waters of Saanich Inlet – September 2013.

The rescue, rehabilitation and release of Levi the harbour porpoise is just one of the amazing success stories I’ve documented highlighting the outstanding work done by the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Over the past three years, I’ve captured the rescue stories of two adorable sea otters, one very charismatic sea lion, two resilient harbour porpoises, and a few hundred pudgy little harbour seal pups. More recently, I was one of three people dispatched to rescue a male false killer whale calf from Chesterman Beach, near Tofino on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Currently the false killer whale is still in critical condition, but his story to this point does a perfect job of displaying the diversity of skill and experience held by incredibly dedicated fish bowl staff.

A male false killer whale calf is bottle fed as part of its rehabilitation. A hydrophone is left in the habitat to collect valuable acoustic data. July 2014.
A male false killer whale calf is bottle fed as part of its rehabilitation. A hydrophone is left in the habitat to collect valuable acoustic data. July 2014.

Beyond rescuing false killer whales and releasing harbour porpoises, there have been plenty of other unique excursions and events that I’ve been privileged to be part of. In the world of cetacean research, Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard is a legend. He’s kind of a big deal – let’s just say he has groupies. Now imagine spending a few days with him on his boat learning about and documenting all the great research he’s done – oh, and imagine bumping into every marine mammal species on the BC coast along the way too. During the few days on the boat with Lance, we encountered minke whales, Dall’s porpoises, harbour porpoises, humpbacks, sea otters, sea lions and a few hundred Pacificv white-sided dolphins. Being able to learn so much about the marine mammals along our coast from such a brilliant person like Lance was better than visiting the moon with Neil Armstrong.

A humpback whale surfaces and exhales, Plumper Islands, BC - October 2012.
A humpback whale surfaces and exhales, Plumper Islands, BC – October 2012.

Canada’s Arctic is not somewhere the average Timbit-eating toque-wearing Canadian is ever going to visit, so being sent twice in twelve months was luckier than “rolling up the rim” to win a dozen honey crullers. From twenty-four hours of summer daylight in Cambridge Bay and Pangnirtung, to the sixty below freezing dark of winter in Gjoa Haven, I’ve gained a completely new respect for the Arctic, including the people who live there and the massive impact we’re having on the environment. Capturing stories of research being conducted in the Arctic to share with the southern public is something that should be done more often – the majority of Canadians have little understanding of what takes place north of the Arctic Circle.

An arctic fox mother sits at the mouth of her den awaiting her kits return, Cambridge Bay, NU - July 2012.
An arctic fox mother sits at the mouth of her den awaiting her kits return, Cambridge Bay, NU – July 2012.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have made such amazing friendships with people who care so deeply about the work they do and the animals they care for. In the same sense I’ve always felt privileged that all these incredible people are willing to share their experiences and allow me to tell their stories. Whether it’s a new species of fish or an animal being trained a new behaviour, if someone is excited enough to reach out and share – it’s always worth documenting. I’ve always made a point of saying “yes” to anyone wanting to share.

Film Hope, a female African penguin, against a large piece of white paper. (photo: Jeff Heywood)
Filming Hope, a female African penguin, against a large piece of white paper. (photo: Jeff Heywood)

The single most important thing to consider when filming anything at the Aquarium is that animal health is the priority. That means at any moment being ready to drop the camera to lend a hand to help move gear or hold an animal. It also means not inhibiting the people working with the animals. No piece of footage or photo is worth slowing down people who are caring for an animal. What does this really mean? It means getting the shot the first time and not having to ask any animal to repeat a behaviour. You can’t ask a fish to stop laying eggs and start over again where the light is better. Preparing for a shot means understanding the species being documented – does it find light aversive, will its behaviour be impacted by the camera’s presence, how close is too close or unsafe?

In bone chilling -60°c temperatures this Panasonic AF101 kept on going. Gjoa Haven, NU - February 2013.
In bone chilling -60°c temperatures this Panasonic AF101 kept on going. Gjoa Haven, NU – February 2013.

If you haven’t gotten the idea yet, I don’t have just one job, I’ve got many jobs all sushi-rolled into one. It’s part aquarist, part marine mammal trainer, part snowmobiler, part rescue technician, part videographer, part photographer, part editor, and part IT technician – it’s a simple job. Sometimes the job has nothing to do with videography or editing. On occasion, I’ve designed exhibits, created touch interfaces, and for the past year I have managed the fish bowl’s Instagram account – which has been a lot of fun.

On June 14, 2013 a pod of Bigg's killer whales, also known as transient, entered Burrard Inlet.
On June 14, 2013 a pod of Bigg’s killer whales, also known as transient, entered Burrard Inlet.

Now that you know a little more about what a videographer and editor does at an aquarium, it’s worth mentioning the biggest challenge I encountered in this position. The Vancouver Aquarium’s marine mammal team is a remarkable group of roughly twenty incredibly dedicated and intelligent people, all working together to ensure the best care for the animals. The digital content department, on the other hand, consists of six people who, for the most part, have very specific skill sets – there is one videographer. The transition from working as part of a large team, to being one individual responsible for a whole whack of visuals was more than challenging.

Here’s the twist: does this job sound interesting to you? Does using a camera come as naturally to you as belting out Vanilla Ice while stuck in traffic? Does your Linkedin profile have endorsements for environmental science as well as social media? Can you look at video and dissect its method of capture? Do you have a passion for storytelling? If you’ve answered yes to most of these questions and you’re looking for a challenge – the job is vacant as of today.

Indy working with Qila, the 19 year-old beluga whale who was the first beluga to be conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium.
Indy working with Qila, the 19 year-old beluga whale who was the first beluga to be conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium.

I can’t begin to express my gratitude towards all of those I’ve had the pleasure of working with in my time at the Vancouver Aquarium. In 1999, at the age of fourteen, my grade eight teacher suggested I consider volunteering at the Aquarium. Fifteen years later, I’m leaving without a single regret. Just as the behaviours of animals are shaped and conditioned by trainers, the person I am today is a direct reflection of those who I’ve worked with. The life changing experiences I’ve encountered over the past fifteen years were only life changing thanks to the people I was with. I can honestly say that I have two families.




1 thought on “Let Me Tell You About My Boat”

  • You had an amazing ride Neil and though our work together was on an occasional basis our contact remained and you will be missed. I wish you all the luck ( you don’t really need that) success, satisfaction, love and health in your new venture and I know we will keep in touch.

    Sincerely Peter Mieras aka “The Diving Dutchman”

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