An Interview with WiseOceans… James Stewart from Aquarium of the Pacific
This week we’ve been discussing all things marine with James Stewart, Education Coordinator of Boat Programs at the Aquarium of the Pacific. James has always been passionate about marine life and conservation. He strongly believes that education is the key to changing people’s attitudes about the importance of healthy oceans. Everything we do as marine educators, scientists and volunteers works towards this goal and makes a real difference.
Name: James Stewart
Job Title: Education Coordinator of Boat Programs
Organisation: Aquarium of the Pacific
- What inspired you to pursue a career in marine conservation?
My primary focus was education as a public school teacher. It wasn’t until I moved to California that got into informal education and marine conservation. I didn’t realize how much educating the guests at a public institution could help with conservation when I started, but every day I see someone internalize something we’ve said about keeping our oceans healthy and preserving marine life. When I was promoted to take over our whale watch programs I decided to have our naturalists not only educate about the cetaceans but all the marine life we would see. Our goal is to paint a picture of the marine ecosystem as a whole, from the birds and sea turtles, to all the fish and pinnipeds. And of course, the magnificent whales the guests get to see in our local waters.
- What steps did you take/are you taking to achieve your career goals?
I have my bachelor’s degree in biology, but didn’t formally study marine science. It was always a passion of mine. Whenever I could I would read or learn something about marine biology. I started out teaching high school science in Colorado, USA, and once I moved to Southern California I decided to get into marine science and education. Now that I have this position at the aquarium I have been networking with other marine scientists and attending workshops, symposiums, and lectures to learn more about the current marine science being done. With that information I can provide our naturalists with more information to talk to our guests during the whale watches.
- How did you land your current job/position?
I actually started at the Aquarium of the Pacific as an education volunteer. I bounced around to a few different jobs, but nothing ignited my passion for science, education, and the ocean. The aquarium was my favourite part of the week, just getting to volunteer for the 5 hours a week recharged me. I even started volunteering with their animal care department so I could spend more time here. Eventually I was hired on as an educator and a couple years later promoted to a program coordinator.
- Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
We have interns help collect our whale sighting data and photograph the local wildlife during the whale watches for our partnership with Cascadia Research Collective. I really enjoy working with them and helping them learn the in-and-outs of doing field data collection and photo identification of our target species. Whenever I can I try to get out on the boat with the interns to work with them and talk with our guests.
- Are there aspects of your position which make you feel that you are really ‘making a difference’?
Before I was brought on to the program the data we had collected for Cascadia was used to move the shipping lanes for the Los Angeles port in 2013. The continued efforts we make to map all the different cetacean species can really bring public awareness into the forefront of protecting whales from ship strikes and helping to engender a sense of community with our local marine species. If the shipping lanes need to be adjusted for ecological reasons in the future, the information we are collecting can help provide the evidence needed to make the most ecologically friendly decision.
Along with our photo ID work to monitor which blue whales are coming back to our area each summer, we can continue to monitor the migratory population and help further understand the migration patterns and pathing of the largest animal on the planet.
- What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
The amount of time it takes to work through a photo catalogue of blue whales to identify just one individual from a single whale watch. Trying to make sure we have accurate counts of blue whale individuals and ID-ing them is a much longer, and tedious, process than I expected. Since we are not using any software to make the initial identifications it can take us a lot of time to go through 6 hours of whale watch photos collected during a single day.
- What advice would you give to budding marine conservationists?
It might take a while to get where you feel like you can make a difference, but it’s worth it. There will also be lots of things that will feel like it is stifling your ability to create an impact, but know that everything we do as educators and naturalists, field or lab scientists, volunteers and citizen scientists, really makes a difference. Someone will hear our message, or see the work we do, and they will change the way they look at nature. And that spreads to their friends, relatives, or cohorts.
- What is your favourite marine creature and why?
I’m in charge of our whale watching programs and I really do love whales, but my favourite marine creatures are the ones that live at the absolute bottom of the oceans. The animals that live thousands of meters below the surface are so beautiful to me. The variety and beauty of those animals in the deepest aquatic habitats is mesmerizing to me. I especially love the feather stars. The way they move, the adaptations they have to survive in such a harsh environment, they are definitely one of my favourite animals. If I wasn’t working with whale identification I would probably find a way to study deep ocean animals.
- What is your most unforgettable moment in the sea?
The most amazing thing I’ve witnessed was a massive nursery pod of sperm whales. Estimates ranged anywhere from 50 – 100 individuals spread out over a few miles of water. Just getting to see a very rare animal for local whale watches was amazing in and of itself, but to get to see so many in one sighting will probably be the most unforgettable thing I will see in my career.
Thanks James, some great advice in there and great to hear how you yourself started as a volunteer and then it was you the aquarium approached to hire. It is wonderful to hear the passion you have for your role in educating the public.