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Jackie Hildering: The Marine Detective at WhaleFest 2019 | Conservationists | Ep 24 Transcript

Updated: May 17

This week's episode is with one of the most driven and passionate guests we've ever had; Jackie Hildering, the keynote speaker at WhaleFest 2019! She calls herself the Marine Detective in part because she always asks the question "Why?", and she believes that a sense of wonder is the most important tool in the conservationist's toolkit. Read along to learn about her journey from the classroom to the founder of the Marine Education and Research Society, and all of her crazy stops along the way!

Diving gear, an important tool in a marine conservationist's toolkit.

Chance: Alrighty guys, welcome to another episode of Conservation Connection. We are here in Sitka at WhaleFest 2019 and we are incredibly excited to be sitting across the table from Jackie Hildering, who is a Humpback Researcher and the Director of Education and Communication for the Marine Education and Research Society, and her more interesting title is the Marine Detective.

SK: Welcome to the show!

Jackie: Thank you so much Chance and Sarah.

SK: We're very excited to have you here today. Clearly, as of Chance's introduction, you have a lot of titles and it sounds like you do a whole lot, so why don't you tell us a little bit about what your jobs are.

Jackie: Yeah. I think I have to explain the, the origin, like how does one land at calling themselves the Marine Detective? And as the world's only! Like, even though there are children now at Halloween who dress up as the Marine detective, I wish to say, which is like, fantastic.

SK: That's cool.

Chance: Like career goals, right there.

Jackie: Career goals right there. Yeah. Children with little mini scuba tanks strapped to their backs with a magnifying glass.

Chance: So how did we get here?

Jackie: How did we get here? Uh, so I am a teacher through and through. And for many years I taught in the Netherlands. Uh, I am from British Columbia, Canada grew up there, but Dutch lineage and, uh, came back to BC on a family visit and in a life where it would've seemed like society thought I was very much succeeding in terms of my career in education and in school administration. I didn't realize I was bleeding out talking about nature as if it were somewhere else. And fortuitously, my friends when I was back in British Columbia took me on a whale watching trip. And I felt like I'd been slapped upside the head because I knew that I wanted to come back and just learn from nature to fill up again.

And what that led to was my working on the very same whale watching boat that I had gone out on. So it started off, then, going from being a teacher who had very much the understanding of how extraordinary our coastline is, and how even that sense of space and quiet was something that was hard to come by in other parts of the world, started off with trying to make the experience of seeing Orca in the wild count for the sake of conservation and society's health. I got involved, I was still always a teacher, had a young naturalist club, uh, was involved with the Namgis First Nation striving to prove that you can raise Atlantic salmon on land, that you don't have to use the Pacific ocean to raise them there like a big feed lot. I, good God what else was I doing?

I was, anyway, there were all these roles and at some point when it came to people asking me, "what do you do?" It was like really difficult. I do all these things! And then the common denominator became clear. It all had to do with the ocean, was all education-related, and I wanted it to have the right sense of humility that I was finding things out, but wanting it to count by sharing it with people. And then it was, "I'm a Marine Detective!"

And within all of that, to add to the whole mystery piece of it is while out on the water choosing to live, I've now lived for 20 years in the same place, not only as a diver and underwater photographer, because that's also in there, do I know individual fish in that little part of the planet. But then humpback whales started coming back. And of course with a curiosity of a detective. It's like, who are those whales? Will they come back? What are they feeding on? Who is associating with who? And that led to my being a cofounder of the Marine Education and Research Society. And we could never have anticipated how the humpbacks would come back in number to the coast of British Columbia and what that would mean in my having to manage my life and time. Thank you, humpbacks.

Chance: So I think what I really love about this story is that, for me, your path is at the core of "what is science," and science is wonder. Science is asking questions. That is the core of everything. I mean, you have to write it down, that's what makes it science. But that desire to understand and willingness to put the time and energy and effort in to understand that is the core of science.

Jackie: Yeah, that is so true and it's become, thank goodness that's, that's diminishing. And certainly like at Sitka WhaleFest that's at the heart of what they're striving for, but indeed, the stoic scientist, the lofty scientist, the scientists, scientists only speaking to policy rather than to the public, like thank goodness that that's dying out because it's... Science, truth, and facts are in fact endangered species right now. And scientists have to speak for the wonder. And for how we change over time, like a huge theme for me is in, in what I've learned is how radically we as humans can become better versions of ourselves when knowledge replaces fear. And that's true in terms of biology. That's true in terms of sociology. It's, it's true across the board. And so absolutely that.

That inherent sense of wonder for me, it's kind of an age eight kind of thing. I'm 56 now, but that eight year old is the best part of myself. That is the one who goes rooting around, learning from nature, not making themselves hugely self-important, and then the educator part kicks in because then I want to go screaming and tell other people about it.

SK: I just want to take a step back. And as a side note, you had said the "whales were coming back" and Chance and I were actually just talking about this to someone else right before this interview, but for those who may not know who are listening, could you tell us: where had the whales gone?

Jackie: Yes. Thank you so much, Sarah. Indeed. So whales were whaled up to 1966 in both British Columbia and in Alaska. And in British Columbia we pushed them over the edge. There were a few around in say the 1980s in my area, specifically Northeastern Vancouver Island, but there were these huge, unpredictable, like you just wouldn't see humpbacks because we had whaled them out. Thankfully we didn't fully push them over the edge, so there's population growth, there's the recolonizing of the inshore waters of British Columbia, but there's, there's a bigger mystery at play because the number are too big to just be population growth. So they're shifting from somewhere else, and we don't know where else. Like here, our dear colleagues in Southeast Alaska, they have been missing their humpbacks. We don't have them. They're not the same humpbacks. And for me, and this is again, I think where the educator kicks in maybe a little bit more than the scientists, because I think having that sense of humility to realize that we don't know so much even about the giants who breathe the very air that we do, is so incredibly important in how we treat our environment, and certainly the ocean, the life sustaining force on the planet.

Chance: Yeah. I think that's a really, really important point to make that even in the information age that we're in, there are so many things we don't know even about the basic aspects of the Marine environment. Where do these whales go? Sure. We know that many humpbacks travel between this specific part of the country and Hawaii for breeding grounds and, and we know some of the basics, but there are literally missing whales right now, whales that we have no idea where they traveled to.

Jackie: Yeah. That, that previously had incredible site fidelity, and then they go somewhere else. But it, but indeed, that sense of humility, especially in like you say in the age where, "Hey, well I'll just Google it, somebody surely knows." No dear fellow humans, yeah, we have not figured out the basics of giants that breathe the very air that we do that have been studied for 40 years. Humpback song, like, changed we humans so radically, like that, the discovery of song and humpbacks and other species of whales, yeah, made us better versions of ourselves. That's more than 40 years ago; nobody has proven why humpback whales sing. Like the idea right away that it's comparative virility with male singing, "Hey, Hey baby, I sing better than he does. Let me be your baby daddy." So far? No evidence to support that. The best theory is that it is, uh, to establish acoustic territory in the breeding grounds. Not that they don't also sing in cold water because they do as well.

So, so that for me is so important because we humans need humility. We need precaution. We need connection. We need a sense of wonder. We need not to feel the arrogance that we can have the ingenuity to engineer our way out of problems. And something like the humpbacks, they're pretty powerful indicators that something is changing. You know when grey will start dying along and washing up along the shore, they, they migrate much closer to shore, more than 130 gray whales found, so how many are at the bottom of the ocean, found stranded from Mexico up into Alaska this year? What is that telling us? And then that's the, the voice that I'm speaking in for the Marine education research society as a humpback researcher. But then there's the piece that I actually think is way more important, which is the world below the surface that sustains the humpbacks.

If we don't know the basics about giants, what does that say about what's like within even, within even 10 feet below the surface of plankton-rich waters where people can't clearly see to the bottom? And you know, a startling, startling example of that is that the average person is not aware that one of the greatest wildlife die offs in recorded history is happening right under the surface, and it is sunflower stars. Sea stars broadly, 20 species impacted since the Marine heat wave in 2013 from the coast of Mexico up into Alaska. Some of those 20 species appear to be recovering, but it kind of looks like it's fluctuating, Sunflower stars, the world's biggest sea star is being considered as an endangered species in Washington. In a dive that I did up here in Sitka, in habitat where there should have been these big amazing predators of this multi legged, uh huge seastar should have been everywhere. I found one. It had the syndrome, its legs were crawling away from its body as a stress response.

Chance: And I think it's important to tie this back; these are not sort of auxiliary parts of the ecosystem. Seastars have an incredibly important niche within the kelp forest ecosystem, right?

Jackie: Absolutely. And it comes back again to our not looking below the surface, having a disconnect that stops at the surface speaking in huge sweeping terms, because sunflower stars have the same role in the ecosystem as do sea otters. And I think we all know that if sea otters with their cute little faces were in distress at the surface of the water and that you were even finding dead ones, that there would likely be some funding, uh more funding released for that.

Chance: A huge response.

Jackie: There would be a huge public awareness like what is going on? What is wrong with the sea otters? The same thing is happening below the surface. And then why I say they have the same role in the ecosystem is because both sea otters and sunflower stars as the predators that they are, they eat urchins. And urchins, it's their job to be eating kelp. And kelp forests are habitat for many, many species. They produce oxygen. They buffer carbon dioxide. If it's thrown out of balance because you've got less sea otters or sunflower stars, you get more urchins and they mow down the kelp forest and you get the loss of habitat, oxygen production and carbon dioxide buffering.

Chance: It's like a bulldozer rolling through a neighborhood. It just completely flattens all of the places where, where life would exist.

Jackie: They're called, they're called barrens, where you have the, they... Like the sea urchins themselves, like I think we have to be, I have to be careful in making them sound like culprits because that's a good metaphor with the bulldozer, but bulldozers, shouldn't be um rocketing [around]. The urchins, they belong there. Uh, but indeed, it's when systems are thrown, uh, that there are these extreme changes. And, and I haven't talked about like, why is it thought that there's this horrible impact on sunflower stars and for that species it has been determined that it is a virus that's been around for a long time. More than 70 years and that it's now having an impact in a way that it never has previously. And surprise folks, it's another symptom of the same disease because it appears to be associated with extremes in climates. And whether that is just warm water or changes from cold to warm, whether it has to do with runoff. But there is absolutely, it's, it's a virus. You know, why why are you more susceptible to getting the flu? Also has to do a stressors.

Chance: Right.

Jackie: And it's so important, but like, so a huge part of what I strive for as an underwater photographer coupled with the bossy nature of a teacher, is to speak for the life below the surface, directly below the surface, and to try to enrich people's understanding that it is the dark waters of the world that have more life in them. Because you've got more food at the bottom of the food web, it's the plankton that makes everything look soupy. So that's why you have the, the giants. And it is so important because it is the life-sustaining force on the planet, the ocean.

Chance: Absolutely.

SK: Yeah. And as you said, education and communication is such, that's the main part of what you do, really. And it's so important to you. What impact have you seen science communication make? Have you had experiences where, as you've been talking to people, you've just seen kind of a switch go off and a better understanding of what's happening?

Jackie: Yes, in a huge, like I'm 56 years old, so I'm very fortunate to have lived where I can see huge changes within one human lifetime. Massive changes. And I think we, we forget about that. So the fact that there used to be machine gun to shoot at Orca, uh, put there by the government. Yeah. Never fired because ricocheting bullets is a bad idea, but it certainly is. Uh, so where we used to kill seals and sea lions and basking sharks, and the list goes on and on. Homophobia, terrible racism, all within one lifetime these changes have been made. And one of the changes, thank goodness, is the whole idea of a stoic scientist that just informs policy and so-forth and so-forth, that is lofty and, and somehow, you know, given special glitter that other human beings don't have. That's done. That is done. You have to speak for your science. And, and for specific examples that would often be when I worked on the whale watching boats, actually. We had very hard hitting uh messaging on every trip about how, and we, and, and, and this is gonna not be sound like how I would deliver it to people on the boat, but it would be trying to present the experience as the privilege that it was. To try to watch wildlife as if we weren't there. And then the messaging around, look at how we've changed. These Orca that you watched with respect today, that you listened to, realize that it was perceived that they were abundant however many years ago. One man made a difference by studying them as individuals. That was only in 1973. Now we know that there's at least 10 different kinds of Orca on Earth.

Yeah. And the whole theme of how wrong we can be, but how quickly we can change when knowledge replaces fear, and then using science communication, so using the facts and science, but then being a communicator and an educator and making that not be one little piece of knowledge that very often is about problems. But to say what you're unlikely to hear from those who have power now is that these are just symptoms of the same disease. Yeah. And then along the lines of what the common solutions are therefore. Whether we're talking about toxins in killer whales or climate change or so many issues, sea star wasting. And it is really like understanding capacity for change, remembering capacity for change. And then the elements of understanding, connection, having humility, truly embracing precaution.

And then a huge thing, like I feel like I'm an "in the trenches" environmental educator, like trying to like, Oh God, now I've got this incredibly powerful engager in big air quotes, whales. How do I make that count? How do I help people get their heads out of their bottoms? Cause that's a terrible position to be in. Yeah. And, and, and the huge thing that I learned is, Oh my goodness, the energy changes as soon as I talk about reducing. People are associating using less with being about loss rather than understanding it's about gain. And Oh my goodness just this one like realization, if those who are working for the environment would stop talking about "the problems" as if they were all separate problems for starters, but then also to model the happiness and liberation and empowerment that comes from a life of using less. Less fossil fuels. Again, not perfectionist, debilitating, and it's annoying as well when people try. It is, it is about doing what you can through voter behavior, consumer behavior to use less dangerous chemicals, less fossil fuels, less disposables.

Chance: Just being conscientious, just being mindful of what you're using and trying to reduce it.

Jackie: And not succumbing to overwhelm, not succumbing to overwhelm, and realizing there's a paradigm around us that is trying to maintain power. And look at all the positivity going on around us that is resulting despite things being driven by a fossil fuel paradigm, a disposable paradigm and consumer paradigm. Look at all the positivity of people going, "yeah no actually". So here's how I vote this is how I consume. No hard, no. And, and thereby not giving in. Because it works really well to feel overwhelmed. That works really well for the powers that be for people to be overwhelmed, to be fearful. And something that works for me is to capture it under equal paralysis and equal phobia. Yeah. That we, we put forward in our teaching kids very often, you've got to be so careful. It, it makes it sound like the environment is sick. It makes it sound like the environment is outside of ourselves. Rather than us being like, I don't know, a solution, but I get labeled as an environmentalist. It's like, wait, what? I'm a teacher. I kinda like really care about the next generation. I'm in service to them. That's what this is motivated about. And how do I get to be for the environment and you not, cause I think the same rules apply for survival.

Chance: Right. Yeah, we all live here. We are all literally on the same boat and we should all care equally about this massive issue.

Jackie: And understand human capacity for change. We're such better versions of ourselves than we used to be when you look at things like, like human rights. Yeah. And, and what we used to do to other species, and we have to not give in. You may have this in your social media worlds as well, where there is like almost like an environmental disaster porn thing that happens where you, you try to open up discussion about a problem and then somebody comes with the next problem and the next problem and the next problem. And the sort of commentary of, "yeah, humans are a blight on the planet. Yeah. It's all hopeless anyways." Like, yo, stop. You cannot do that. You cannot do that you are a human. Yeah. I'm trying to turn into a sea lion. It's not working. Yeah. Facial hair is becoming fabulous, by the way, but it's, it's uh but we are human. We have capacity for change. We are in service to the next generation and, and needs to listen to them and understand that every generation is smarter than the one before it. And that exiting stage left is, I understand the psychology of it. Again, it's why it's so important to me to connect, to make sure that there's wonder to not have science be something that's over in a bloody graduated cylinder somewhere, but that it's accessible to the public where people are critically thinking, where people understand that happiness comes not with acquisition over a certain level of, of comfort, but that it comes from knowing that you're empowered and knowing your place within nature. And, and even just that notion of, of, wait a minute, I don't come up with my own ideas of success here. And it's, this is so important for kids to know. Advertising is solely based on discontent.

Chance: Right, "you have a problem let me fix it."

Jackie: Yes, exactly. You're not happy get this. Yeah, that pimple on your nose? Like it's just like, its... And to even realize just that, that wait a minute, this, this sense of what I'm feeling and how, how I'm not what I'm supposed to be. Like, of course you feel that way! Of course you do. You're being bombarded by value systems that aren't your own. And then at least knowing that there's, okay, wait a minute. Yeah. Where's this coming from? What does it mean? And wait, no, I need to know my own happy. I need to find my own way.

Chance: Yeah. And I think that your journey really shows you living that, because you start your story by saying, "by everybody's measure, I was successful. And then I went on a whale ship and I realized that I was bleeding out." And you manufactured your own career path. You've manufactured your own way to care and make it count. And that is, I think, a really empowering story that not enough people realize that they can manufacture for themselves.

Jackie: If they don't get stuck, because that is the thing with the consumer paradigm, and if you swallow somebody else's ideas of success, sometimes it's really difficult to jump. Yeah. If you've got a big mortgage, if you've got it, and again, for the the generation following mine, it's one of the most valuable things that I can, can share is, "look there's a paradigm." These are the ideas of success. When you get on the train, just be aware of where you're going so that you can get off when you want to. Yeah. To, to use that metaphor. And I was lucky enough where I could jump. And for what it's worth, like when I, when I, I didn't know that I was going back to a job. I had nothing. It was just like, "I know that this is not it". And I had a strong enough emotional compass where I just knew, I got to do this, it's risky. But then to get from the people around me who loved me, to have them screaming at me that I was being irresponsible, it was career suicide and the list went on and on. And there too. It took me so long to realize, Oh wait, it's not that they don't want me to do it. They can't do it. And that I was a confrontation for their value systems.

Chance: Right. I have to say it's really gratifying because sitting across the table from you here, this is a journey that we, Sarah Kathryn and I, have gone through with starting our own nonprofit. We really had to take that big, deep breath and then just jump and say, "this is what we feel drawn to, it's what we feel passionate about and we don't know that we can make a living at it, but if we never try, we won't be happy". And it's a story that's not told often enough.

Jackie: And things don't go particularly well when you don't listen to your internal compass.

Chance: No, no, they don't.

SK: Yeah, I would agree. Going back to. At least for me, this is kind of been a focus on communication and how passionate you are about communication, and especially being here at Whale Fest I think we're, we're very fortunate and that we get to come here and we get to work with and see all of you scientists and see so many people who are passionate about the environment. And you get really excited and, and you want to do everything and make a change for everything. And you go home and it's a week later and you have all these grand ideas that you've wanted to do and how you've wanted to change things and then it seems overwhelming or you get caught up in your life. Do you have any recommendations for how people listening to this episode or who are going to conferences of their own may, kind of, sustain that passion and drive even when it gets overwhelming and it seems like maybe they don't have every single resource to make that change?

Jackie: Yeah. I wish I had a really simple answer. And then hopefully the audience is receptive to this, but first to realize how you're feeling. To check in with yourself. Why the state of overwhelm, what is it? And the mantra that kicks in for me when people start that dynamic of here's the next problem and the next problem and the next problem, next one, is with all that I have, I believe and hear echoed in my head "yeah different symptoms, same disease". Cause it is.

This all comes down to a consumer-driven paradigm, and to to understand that and then how you liberate yourself from that? Well having the appropriate self care initially of understanding what is happening to you emotionally, and where that's coming from and how you're being manipulated, and then to undertake action. Like, the happiest, like look around you; the happiest people are the most empowered people. Yeah. And empowered because they're doing what they feel they've been beamed down to do. Yeah. Whatever that means to people spiritually or not. Because that's, as you have have done, is following the direction. And that doesn't mean something as grand as I want to be a whale researcher, I'm going to be a diver or I'm going to start my own podcast. Maybe that is the thing, but it's undertaking action and also realizing "okay, yeah, this helps why". And I'm not of the mind that, directly, that one less plastic bottle, uh, in the world is going to make a real big difference. But where it does make a difference is when people actually start undertaking the action, it becomes identity shifting and then people will consume differently and they'll vote differently and they will speak to the people they love differently. And that's where that empowerment comes from.

It is so important that if you are feeling like you are in a state of overwhelm, we are losing. Whatever it takes to have the self care, that isn't taxing to the environment excessively, where you are not a fallen soldier. Because there is a battle going on here. There is a battle for basic human rights going on, for shared global resources, for the environment, which is us, for our children and grandchildren. There is a battle going on and if people give in to despair, to the overwhelm to ecophobia and ecoparalysis, we need every soldier to be standing up straight and marching in the right direction.

Chance: Yeah, I completely agree with that.

SK: Yeah, absolutely. Now, if people wanted to find out more about you or your organization, is there somewhere that they could go to find out a little bit more?

Jackie: Absolutely! Please, come into the community! Yeah. Let me know that you came via the podcast! And so indeed, if you Google "The Marine Detective" or if you look on Instagram or Facebook, yep. There is one and only one. And then there'll be easy links to the other part, which is the whale research and all the wonder associated with that and what we're learning from the whales, and that is the Marine Education and Research Society,

Chance: So if you guys are listening, scroll on down to those show notes, we're going to put those links right there so you can click on them from right here within the show.

Thank you so much for your time and for your passion and for just your journey and for sharing that with us today.

Jackie: It means the world to have spoken to you, thank you both.

SK: Thank you.

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