Vancouver Island

The Marine Detective

by Mandy Savoie

Photo courtesy of Andrew Topham, made possible by Melanie Wood

On the surface, the waters off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island are often too dark to peer into; the most evident signs of marine life tend to be sea lions sunbathing on rocky islets or whales coming to the surface to breathe. But hidden beneath the waves is a vibrant, varied world alive with natural wonders like giant Pacific octopuses, bull kelp forests, bright blue sea slugs, yellow sponges and pink, slinky sea anemones.

The biodiversity of the Northeast Pacific Ocean—from its 40,000-kilogram humpback whales to its teeny, tiny plankton—has long fed Jackie Hildering’s passion and curiosity for the sea.

“I’m voraciously curious in the sheer amazingness of marine organisms, and I want to share that information” — Jackie Hildering, the Marine Detective

Hildering calls herself the Marine Detective because her work as a teacher, diver, underwater photographer, researcher and co-founder of the Marine Education & Research Society (MERS) all comes down to increasing understanding of the ocean.

“I hope the name suggests humility,” Hildering says of her detective label. “It’s not that I know everything, it’s that I’m voraciously curious in the sheer amazingness of marine organisms and want to share that information.”

Hildering’s background is in biology, a subject she taught for 14 years in the Netherlands before a whale-watching trip in British Columbia inspired her to return to her native province. Now based out of Port McNeill, she says her most important role is revealing “the mystery, the beauty and the fragility of what’s under the surface.”

Q: What is a common misconception about the Northeast Pacific Ocean?

A: There is a bias that places like Hawaii, Fiji and other areas of clear water have more life because you can see it. But that’s not the case. If you can see to the bottom, it means there is far less plankton. Our dark, cold waters can sustain giants—we have the world’s biggest octopus (the giant Pacific octopus), the world’s biggest sea star (the sunflower star), the world’s biggest barnacle—because of the plankton; they are the bottom of the food web that fuel everything else.

Q: What creatures would people be surprised to see in the waters off Vancouver Island?

A: We have around 200 species of sea slugs, and they are very diverse in colour and shape. We have everything from little sea slugs that fly underwater like butterflies to ones that are 30 centimetres long with skin that looks like an orange peel. We also have a fish that swims around like a mini helicopter with the ridiculous name of Pacific spiny lumpsucker.

Q: What should diving enthusiasts make sure to see when venturing underwater in BC?

A: The most beautiful places we have in BC are our bull kelp forests. They’re located in shallow inshore waters along our coast where the conditions of light, current, waves and temperature are just right. Countless species depend on bull kelp forests directly for their survival. They provide food and shelter to many species of rockfish, juvenile salmon, sea stars, marine snails and much more.

Q: What marine mystery do you hope still gets solved?

A: Well, no one knows for sure why humpbacks sing. The common perception is it must be like songbirds—the males are singing to the females. But there’s little research to support that.

Q: What do the songs sound like?

A: The songs are incredibly complex, and are built from a repertoire of chirps, grunts, growls, ribbits, yups and squeaks. They typically last around 15 minutes and are made up of themes that humpbacks repeat over and over. What’s mind-blowing is that in every breeding area, the male humpbacks sing the same song, and if the song changes over time, they’ll adopt the changes. They [sing] more often when they go to the breeding grounds in Hawaii, but humpbacks also sing when they’re up here.