Laurie Murison – from monkeys to bears to whales

Laurie Murison says, “I am a researcher first, but then you see problems along the way and you try and deal with them, and that is how I also became a conservationist. Whales came first, conservation came later… And in fact I didn’t even mean to work with whales at all…”

Laurie was born and grew up in Alberta then Saskatchewan, in western Canada. She always loved animals, and at school she was also keen on science and maths. Her schooling during her teenage years made she aware that “We were headed for a very different world because of what humans were doing to it”. She became very interested in large land mammals, with her role models being the ‘Leakey Girls’. It was Mary Leakey who first discovered the famous early hominoid skeleton ‘Lucy’. The ‘Girls’ Dian Fossey, Jane Goodall and Birute Galdikas all worked for Leakey in their early days. Laurie would read about these incredible women in journals such as National Geographic and become inspired by them and the animals they worked with.

However, they were in Africa and Laurie was in North America. She remembers thinking, “I can’t get to Africa so it’ll have to be other mammals then!” The family sometimes took their vacation in the Rockies, so Laurie had plenty of large land mammals, such as grizzlies, to choose from. So, she took her degree in biology focussing on terrestrial mammals. At the end of her course she happened to see a poster advertising a study course on marine mammals on the west coast at Bamfield Marine Lab. She figured this would be good experience and it sounded interesting, so she phoned them up and was asked, “Can you be here in three days?” “Yes” was her reply and so, just like that, she went! (For anyone wondering; that sort of thing does not happen nowadays. The field is very competitive, and budding marine biologists have to prove their worth; remember how it took Peggy three years to get her resume looked at by Dr. Dan Salden?)

The course was not until August, but Laurie arrived in April to be put to work. She carried out maintenance, fed the octopi, and “Slugged mud”. Throughout this time there were various other courses going on which she was able to sit in on. Suddenly she was immersed in the world of marine mammals, getting to know a lot of people who were already in the know, and talking to marine biology students. Her course was run by Kenneth Norris, who was “An amazing storyteller. He had the ability to really get you in to the subject and visualise. He taught me to think like a whale”. His assistant was Jim Darling who was also good friends with Flip Nicklin and whose student was Beth Mathews… For anyone in the marine mammal world, these are big names, for anyone outside it, just believe me; they are big names!

At the same time, Laurie’s brother happened to know another whale-guy, Kerry Finley, who was working in the Arctic. Laurie remembers her brother advising her that she should “Think about studying and working with whales…”

Laurie decided to apply for a Masters focussed on marine mammals, and she wrote to Dr. David Gaskin requesting him as her professor. Amazingly, with the wonderful references she had gained from her time at Bamfield his reply was, “Sure!” In the meantime, before her Masters started, Laurie of course had to work and save up her money.

Dr. Gaskin happened to be carrying out North Atlantic right whale research in the Bay of Fundy, Canada. Now, right whales will feature highly in forthcoming posts as they are worthy of attention, so I will not write too much detail about them here. But just to give you a heads up; North Atlantic right whales are very rare… and that is an understatement. In 1968, Dr. Gaskin was working in the Bay of Fundy and he spotted right whales. He duly made and published a note of this in 1971 and was subsequently laughed at for his trouble. “There can’t be right whales there, there has never been right whales in the Bay of Fundy!” they cried. In 1980, a survey of the entire eastern seaboard was carried out and low and behold, an “Official discovery of right whales in the Bay of Fundy!” was made.

So Laurie joined Dr. Gaskin in the Bay of Fundy and began studying North Atlantic right whales. Gaskin was collaborating with a local fisherman and innkeeper; between them they were setting up a whale watch company, ‘Ocean Search’, to provide additional income for the two locals and a potential research platform for Dr. Gaskin. This was not whale watching as it is done today, this was a whole week’s package where whale watchers spent the entire day at sea, and in the evening watched films and lectures. Laurie began her studies in 1983. She worked for the whale watch company as a spotter on the boat, (with only 200-250 right whales in the entire North Atlantic, her eyes were very much needed), and in the evenings she was given the task of delivering presentations. Her work towards her thesis included collecting behavioural information on the whales, something which “I have not stopped doing since!”

Because of her additional workload with the whale watch company, the unreliability of field research and taking two summers to work with her brother’s friend Kerry Finley in the Arctic studying bowhead whales, it took Laurie about three and a half years to complete her masters. She was then faced with a choice; should she stay on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy which had become her home, or move on to a new place? Incidentally, Laurie met her husband Ken Ingersoll while studying her Masters; he was a local fisherman who assisted Laurie with her research, so the decision of whether to stay or leave was a joint one.

She chose to stay and has remained here ever since. The next question was one of survival; how to earn a living and also study whales. Luckily she was offered the job of becoming manager of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station which paid a small salary. She additionally worked over the years as a naturalist on board commercial whale watching boats; today she collaborates with a great whale watching company based on the island called Whales’n’Sails Adventures. And she has also done “Whatever work I can get!” to bring in an additional income.

And that is how Laurie, who “Had no intention of becoming a marine biologist, but somehow I ended up in the ocean!” came to be here, on Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy, studying North Atlantic right whales.

Throughout her time on Grand Manan researching whales, Laurie has become more aware of, and consequently more involved in, conservation issues and projects. As she says, “Once you get to know individual whales, and then something happens to them, it becomes personal…”

More about that next time…

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