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Marine Education & Research Society Team


Nicole Doe

Nicole is the Director of Operations for the Marine Education and Research Society. She grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and fell in love with the west coast and marine life through spending childhood summers in Victoria, British Columbia. Nicole is motivated by work directed at mitigating interactions between people and life in the ocean. She holds a BSc in Biology and Ocean Sciences from the University of Victoria, a technical diploma in Fish, Wildlife and Recreation from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) and currently, completing a GIS certificate through BCIT. Previously, she has worked as a Biology Technician for Parks Canada at the Saguenay - St. Lawrence Marine Park, Fisheries Technologist on Northern Vancouver Island and Retail and Visitor Experience Manager at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea. 


Caitlin Birdsall

MERS Co-founder and Director of Development: 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. Caitlin worked for Ocean Wise Conservation Association where she coordinated the North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative in Prince Rupert from 2014 to 2020 and the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network from 2009-2013. She is also the founder and chair of the North Coast Ecology Centre in Prince Rupert.  She holds a BSc in Wildlife Biology from the University of Northern B.C. and is a a certified Heritage Interpreter. Caitlin is mother to Olin and Gus. 


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.


Jared Towers

Jared was born and raised in coastal British Columbia and spent every summer on the ocean observing marine wildlife as far back as he can remember. In 2006, he co-founded the North Island Marine Mammal Stewardship Association and began to work as a Cetacean Research Technician for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Jared's current work for DFO includes managing the Bigg's (Transient) and Northern Resident Killer Whale population monitoring programs.  In 2010, Jared co-founded the MERS Marine Education and Research Society. He typically spends over 100 days a year at sea working for these organizations conducting field research on Killer, Humpback, Minke, Fin, Grey and Blue Whales. Jared has also studied Killer, Sperm and Sei Whales in the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean with colleagues at Falklands Conservation, Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Centre. Jared is a member of several marine mammal advisory groups in Canada, has published several scientific articles, and in addition to conducting conservation based field research also responds to cetacean incidents such as entanglements and strandings.   Photo credit: Yanick Rose. 

MERS Board of Directors


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.  Leah is mother to Arlen and Rowan. 


Jake Etzkorn

MERS Secretary: Jake was raised on a lighthouse station on the west coast of Vancouver Island and has worked, played and volunteered on and around the ocean most of his life. Jake spent several summers working for Cetus Research and Conservation Society as a park warden at Robson Bight (Michael Bigg) Ecological Reserve, and subsequently volunteered with Cetus both in the field and as a director. He has also worked as a Marine Planner for Living Oceans Society, based out of the small coastal village of Sointula, British Columbia, where he contributed to planning for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, the Marine Plan Partnership for the Pacific North Coast, and the Scott Islands Marine National Wildlife Area. He currently works as a Scientific Support Technician for the Hakai Institute, based on Quadra Island.  He has an undergraduate degree in Biology from Vancouver Island University.


Huddie Bennett

MERS Treasurer: Huddie’s love of the ocean solidified in 1979 with the National Geographic article on Songs of the Humpback. This inspired her to get certified for scuba when she was 15 on Vancouver Island, and 35 years later is completing her Dive Master training. Being a 70’s free-range farm kid, she explored Vancouver Island beaches and provincial parks by horseback giving her a healthy respect for nature and animals. She raised her kids on her organic farm in Saanich, BC before moving to Vancouver where she started her own business in 2006, Eye Candy Optical, a successful optical store in Vancouver. After selling the company in 2011 she started working in the film industry as a financial controller and facility manager for high-end post-production companies. Huddie currently also sits on the Board of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC as Treasurer and works with the Ocean Legacy Foundation fighting ocean plastic pollution. Photo credit: Nerina Black. 


Alexandra Barron 

MERS Board Member-at-Large: A lifelong marine conservationist and oceans advocate, Alex is the National Director of the Ocean Program for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). She has worked in conservation, education and research around the world, including saving sea turtle nests in Greece, studying sharks in South Africa, and monitoring coral reef ecosystems in the Maldives. Alex’s career highlights include getting a (very lovely) rejection letter from Sir David Attenborough when he wasn’t able to join a submarine expedition she was planning and then getting to go down in the sub in his place! She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Plymouth and an M.Sc. from the Open University (both UK) where she studied anthropogenic impacts on blue carbon ecosystems (like seagrass and marsh). Alex lives on Quadra Island on the unceded territory of the Wei Wai Kai First Nation with her Partner and dog.


Rhona Govender

MERS Board Member-at-Large: Rhona first fell in love with the ocean as a child in South Africa by exploring tide pools and all of the fascinating life found within them. This ultimately led her to work in several ecology-related fields, including as a Marine Conservation Analyst with Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and as a steering committee member for SeaChoice. She has her M.Sc. in Zoology from UBC Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries where she completed a global analysis of the contribution of small-scale fisheries, along with a B.Sc. in Animal Biology. She currently works in the recovery and conservation of marine Species at Risk with DFO's SARA team. She can often be found at the dog beach making new four-legged friends, and is still as excited now as when she was a kid exploring the intertidal and learning about nature.

MERS Research Associates


Tasli Shaw

Tasli is a MERS Research Associate in support of her work maintaining a sightings database and catalogue for Humpback Whales sighted in the Salish Sea (cataloguing effort began in 1997 by Mark Malleson). These efforts also contribute to the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration. Tasli does further work processing whale research data for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) - Humpback Whale data for the DFO CeMoRe Project and Bigg’s Killer Whale data for DFO’s longstanding photo-ID project (in collaboration with Bay Cetology). She coauthored the most recent Bigg’s Killer Whale photo-identification catalogue and has over 11 years’ experience working on the Salish Sea as both a captain and naturalist. 


Mark Sawyer and Ashley Hoyland

Mark and Ashley are MERS Research Associates in support of their work to catalogue Humpback Whales off the west coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI). These sightings help inform the Canadian Pacific Humpback Collaboration. They produce a catalogue of "The Humpback Whales of Clayoquot & Barkley". In addition to their work as MERS Research Associates, their Grey Whale sightings data contributes to monitoring efforts up and down the coast, and for this they are members of the Pacific Coast Feeding Group Consortium. Prior to moving to Canada in 2014, Mark and Ashley were both school teachers in the United Kingdom. They now educate visitors to WCVI, working as captains and naturalists in Clayoquot Sound since 2015. They are proud parents of Arthur, who loves being on the water almost as much they do. 

All photos on this site © Jared Towers, Christie McMillan, Jackie Hildering, and Heidi Krajewsky, unless otherwise indicated. 
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© 2022 Marine Education and Research Society.

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