Jackie Hildering, also known as the Marine Detective, is a Marine Educator with the Marine Education and Research Society based in Northern Vancouver Island. She has an immensely popular Facebook page with over 29,000 followers where she regularly shares her work as a humpback whale researcher and her broader investigations into the mysteries of the sea.
Her dedication to conservation includes tracking individual rockfish that could become 100+ years-old, many who are living in Rockfish Conservation Areas (RCAs) around the coast as populations rebound from over-fishing.
The West Coast Now was lucky enough to sit down with her over Zoom to discuss her work as a marine researcher, her oceanic interactions from humpbacks to rockfish, conservation strategies, and what we can learn from listening to the deep dark sea.
This interview has been edited for conciseness.
WCN: So great to sit down with you, Jackie. My first question for you, is why are you called “The Marine Detective”?
With the Marine Detective, what I very much hope to communicate with that, it’s not that ‘I know everything’ because anybody who claims that with the ocean should not be trusted from the start. I’m a teacher above all and this is about the welfare of future generations and the importance of the ocean. If the ocean and its inhabitants are okay and there’s an understood connection by humans to that extent, then I believe that future generations of children will be okay.
WCN: Amazing. And it seems like you found quite a big social community. People really respond to your posts and photos, why do you think sharing your research is so important?
Yeah, I’m so grateful for that. I am a humpback whale researcher, and even that is accidental. It is a result of curiosity and wanting what I learned to count. It is so acutely clear that the average British Columbian does not understand the world in which the whales live. And that if they close their eyes, something I ask people to do in presentations, can they envision what it looks like in these dark waters? And it reveals maybe an unconscious bias that even though we see whales, or the world’s biggest sea lions, or that we can see orca from shore, that there isn’t the thinking about why that is, why we have such diversity, why we have so many giants.
It’s partly because our psychology tells us, well, if I can see it in the waters of Hawaii, if the water is clear, that must mean there’s more. But [in B.C] it’s the exact opposite, that the dark water is the food that is fueling a food web that can sustain the giants and can sustain way more diversity.
So, yes, I’m a whale researcher, but that imagery of being able to show people what is in these dark waters is so essential. I’ve come to reference that as ‘ocean blindness’ and very often say, how can we be the voters, consumers, parents and teachers we need to be if we don’t understand not only how important the ocean is to oxygen production, carbon absorption or health generally, as a source of food? But then we then have a bias to it being better somewhere else.
WCN: Your work on rockfish is so fascinating and also seems to get a lot of traction online. Why do you think that is?
How people respond to the posts about rockfish is so heartening and indicative of what I hope it achieves, because there isn’t much knowledge. But to know that a rockfish could be living in that one area, in that one place for 116 years, suddenly it’s people shaking their heads, going, “What?!”
With rockfish, it has surprised me that there isn’t knowledge about the condition of barotrauma. That is when a rockfish is reeled up – it’s swim bladder expands and then that pushes out the first part of the digestive tract and pushes out the eyes. And then the assumption is that it’s dead. But no, in fact, it’s possible to get that rockfish to go back down [reversing the barotrauma] where it may be able to live out of its life for over 100 years, or in the case of one species, even over 200 years.
That’s why rockfish conservation areas are so important, because with rockfish living where they are in one locality, we gold-rushing humans go, ‘what if I fish again and again?’ You then deplete the whole population. So rockfish conservation areas can be effective.
WCN: That’s so interesting. Could you expand upon that: why are rockfish such exceptional creatures, and why are they particularly susceptible to overfishing?
British Columbia has 38 species of rockfish and many of them are really long lived, which means that when they are reproductively mature is really late, age twelve, for example. So then if that fish is killed when it’s young, it’s no longer able to help build the population. But we tend to also prefer to catch the biggest fish, and it’s the big mamas that are the ones that are way more fecund, they make way more babies. And this is also something that many people are thankfully very amazed by. These are not fish that fertilize externally – they’re not like salmon that lay their eggs and then the males fertilize them. This happens internally.
We target the big ones and those are the ones that make the biggest contribution to future generations and then we don’t know that they have this really localized habitat, that fish have homes. So those things together led to really bad practices. Rockfish conservation areas are one strategy to help reverse those practices.
It’s one thing if you tell people you can’t fish there and same thing with our other work, like with whales, saying “you need to stay away from that whale!” That doesn’t have the desired reaction very often. But if there’s the understanding of why there is a whole community of fish, this is what it looks like, this is how old they can get – that the impacts are cumulative on top of all these other threats such as a change in climate, that gets people thinking differently.
WCN: I am curious to know, with designated spaces like those Rockfish Conservation Areas, have you seen them be successful? Could that model be used for Marine Protected Areas?
Yeah. I can speak only specifically to one that is close to Port Hardy and that our local dive clubs fought hard for to have that recognized. It’s this tiny little reef that we as divers know, this is a fish city and that was recognized I think in 2007, more than a decade, at any rate.
And again, as a diver, it’s beyond what I could have anticipated, what happened there, and relatively quickly. And this is anecdotal, it’s not me, like, counting the rockfish, but oh, the beauty as you descend, it first starts with the black rockfish coming up. They’ve been lying on the rocks, resting, up they come as this amazing cloud. And then you see that there’s still the tiger rockfish living in the exact same spot that she was, like, ten years ago or the longest that I’ve documented, one is eight years in the same spot. Just in terms of number, in terms of diversity and then size, it really is like, wow, what an investment in the future this is.
WCN: Is there any big mystery that you’re working on right now or any big kind of questions as the Marine Detective that you’re particularly intrigued about?
I think there are some things that we’ll never answer, and I’m kind of okay with that because I think we need that wonder and humility, I say, as a researcher. For the one species I do actually study, with humpbacks as a baleen whale, nobody knows how baleen whales find their food. They don’t have biosonar like toothed whales. They can clearly, like, see them from a considerable distance, target fish at the surface, evident because of what the birds are doing, and nobody knows how any baleen whale finds food. That I often use as an example of, like, we don’t know the basics about the giants who breathe the air that we do. So maybe that should suggest the correct humility for the way that we treat the life sustaining ocean.
So that’s a big one, but it’s more for me, like what the absolute most effort goes into is the mystery of how to find the words, how to find the approach to make this count. I have this extraordinary privilege of knowing what it looks like down there and having dived the same spots for over 20 years. And that is not to take or try to take pretty pictures, that is about, I get to live this. I get to know this. How do I get it to count in the best way possible?
WCN: That’s great. What would you like the people reading this to keep in mind the next time they go on or into the ocean? Whether fishing, or swimming, what do you hope people think about the next time they look at the ocean?
To challenge themselves: what does it look like down there? And if I don’t know, why don’t I know? And if I’m asking why the whales are here, to recognize that’s revealing that there isn’t the understanding in everything that we enjoy in being on the water, that there is that gap, that blindness.
And part of that, too, is to realize the noise that we’re putting into the world. What if people knew that the whales live in a world of sound and that many other animals do, too? And I’ve seen that effect, like, if you can just throw in an underwater microphone, there is an absolute [effect] independent of language barriers. People are just like, ‘what?!’
Yeah, they live in a world of sound! There’s everything from mate selection, contact calls between mums and calves, in the case of orca, knowing how related one another are… like this whole world down there. It goes beyond words.
We are so incredibly lucky and privileged as British Columbians. And to act with that appropriate humility and absence of putting ourselves in the centre of it and to indeed try to generate an image of, what is it like down there? How did the whales live in a world of sound? What does it look like? And then maybe we can move to a place where the keepers of paradise know they’re in it.
WCN: I appreciate you shining a light in the darkness on all the things in the deep ocean that we don’t see and don’t think about yet. Thank you so much, Jackie.