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Marine Mammal Naturalist Course Instructors


Jackie Hildering

Jackie is a Co-founder, Humpback Whale researcher and the Education and Communications Director for the Marine Education and Research Society. She taught biology and administered international schools in the Netherlands for 14 years and since returning to BC in 1999, has worked as a marine naturalist and naturalist trainer striving to create positive environmental change. Her work has included being the local Department of Fisheries and Oceans Education Coordinator, Communications Director for the SOS Marine Conservation Foundation and Community Liaison for the 'Namgis First Nation's KUTERRA land-based salmon farm. She uses her underwater photography and storytelling as "The Marine Detective" to increase awareness of the biodiversity, mystery and fragility of life in the NE Pacific Ocean. Recognition includes being the 2010 winner of the Vancouver Aquarium's Murray A. Newman Award for Excellence in Aquatic Conservation and receiving the 2019 Ecostar Award for Educational Leadership. Her website is the winner of the 2018 Science Writers and Communicators of Canada "People's Choice Award for best Canadian Science Website".  On-camera experience includes Animal Planet’s “Wild Obsession” series; the BBC productions “New threat to Canada’s Pacific humpback whales?” and “Ingenious Animals”; and the PBS production "Lineage".   Photo credit: Andrew Topham.


Christie McMillan 

Christie is a Co-founder and the Director of Humpback Whale Research for the Marine Education and Research Society. She holds an undergraduate degree in Marine Biology from the University of British Columbia and a Master's degree from Simon Fraser University, where she studied Humpback Whale prey and energetics. She is particularly interested in studying and mitigating anthropogenic threats to cetaceans, with a focus on the threat of entanglement in fishing gear. Christie has many years' experience studying Humpback Whale populations on both the east and west coasts of North America and spent two years working with the Center for Coastal Studies’ Marine Animal Emergency Response Program to disentangle whales. When she is not conducting research and response activities for MERS, Christie works as an Aquatic Biologist for the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) Cetacean Research Program, leading a project focused on monitoring the seasonal abundance, distribution, and behaviour of whales, dolphins, and porpoises in the southern Salish Sea. She has also worked for the DFO Species at Risk Program to aid in the recovery of marine mammal species at risk. Christie loves being in the field, studying marine mammals from small boats, large ships, and remote islands. Through her work with several organizations including DFO and the Hakai Institute, she has conducted fieldwork focused on Humpback, Fin, and Killer Whales, Sea Otters, and other marine species at risk all along the coast of BC.


Caitlin Birdsall

MERS Co-founder and Board Vice-chair: Caitlin is a biologist and educator focused on marine conservation in British Columbia. She has worked as a project coordinator, research assistant and naturalist throughout British Columbia, Manitoba, the Philippines and Australia. Caitlin is interested in the application and role of citizen science projects in better understanding far-ranging and difficult-to-study species. She is also passionate about connecting people of all ages to marine environments and inspiring stewardship. Currently, Caitlin is the Coordinator of the North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative in Prince Rupert that aims to better understand cetacean distribution on the North Coast and involve the community in monitoring and conserving these animals. She previously coordinated the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network from 2009-2013. She holds a BSc in Wildlife Biology from the University of Northern B.C. and is a a certified Heritage Interpreter. 


Leah Thorpe

MERS Co-founder and Board Chair: Leah is a marine educator who has worked as a biologist and naturalist for various organizations in British Columbia and the Gulf of Mexico. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology and geography from The University of Victoria and a Master's degree in Environmental Education and Communications from Royal Roads University. Leah has worked closely with Cetacea Contracting to help collect, repair and reconstruct several whale skeletons including work on a Blue Whale skeleton for The University of British Columbia's Beaty Biodiversity Museum. She was previously the Director of Communications and Education for Cetus Research & Conservation Society and is currently working at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea as the Director of Operations. 


Wendy Szaniszlo (Tofino/Ucluelet Course only)

Wendy Szaniszlo is a marine mammal ecologist with 18 years of experience conducting research and monitoring of marine mammal species-at-risk in collaboration with other government agencies, universities and research groups. Wendy has a Master’s degree from the University of Victoria where she studied sea lion interactions with vessels in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Her subsequent work has involved cetacean surveys, humpback and grey whale monitoring programs, Steller sea lion and California sea lion population assessments and brand re-sight surveys, sea lion diet studies, as well as participating in sea lion branding and tagging programs. Her recent focus has been investigating sea lion entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris, and studying the seasonal diet of sea lions in BC. She currently works with DFO’s Cetacean Research Program and conducts grey whale and Steller sea lion surveys for NOAA.

Wendy’s passion is doing applied research to protect marine mammals and their habitat. In her spare time she loves hiking with friends and her dog, and looking for any excuse to be on, near or in the ocean.

All photos on this site provided by and © Jared Towers, Christie McMillan, Jackie Hildering, and Heidi Krajewsky, unless otherwise indicated.
Photos are not to be used without permission.

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