Orca Spirit’s Sheenah Duclos: A Lifetime With the Whales
July 22, 2015
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Do you remember where you were the first time you heard that question? Not many of us do, the memory just isn’t that strong.
That’s not the case for Sheenah Duclos.
Sheenah’s enjoying her sixth season as the head naturalist at Orca Spirit.
“The first time I saw whales was the first time I knew what I was going to do with my life,” Sheenah tells me. “The man leading the tour was naming them and I thought ‘I’d like to name them’.”
I sat down with Sheenah to learn more about her work and her passion for these magnificent animals living beside us.
Kelvin: How did you get into this line of work?
Sheenah: I studied marine biology at the University of New Brunswick and graduated in 2003. I’ve been in the industry in different capacities ever since, first customer service and working my way into doing guides and now helping to bring the next wave of skilled guides up to speed. At Orca Spirit I started as a naturalist on the boat, probably because I’ve got the gift of the gab. I love talking and sharing knowledge with people, plus I just want people to enjoy their time on the water. So I make sure they’re comfortable, they remember sunscreen and bring jackets just in case.
On top of deciding you wanted to name animals for a living when you were young, describe your personal experience the first time you saw whales.
I grew up on Vancouver island and the first time I saw whales was on the ferry going through Active Pass, a really narrow passageway. We saw orcas off the one side of the boat, and I remember seeing the other kids and how blown away they were. So was I, when you’re that age you only think these animals exist in captivity, and when you realize they live in the wild it’s astounding, they’re like us. I knew I wanted to know about them, who they are and how they live. At first I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian but then I saw Baywatch and my father told me about marine biology.
Wait, you’re a naturalist because of Baywatch?
(Laughs) I guess so! Moreso for the marine biology aspect and the science behind ocean life than the lifeguarding and running down a beach. I wanted to work with them, the whales, orcas, humpbacks, and the other animals you get to see, plus I wanted to work and live on the water and in nature. There’s something about orcas specifically – my curiosity took me down a path. Early on I started to learn about unique personalities and the tendencies of family groups.
Being a naturalist you need to understand how they live and how they travel. What are some of the key points in the year for the whales?
The end of March through April the salmon run starts coming from the straight of Juan De Fuca, so the whales will start coming in to spend more time feeding.
Humpbacks and Grays will start coming in at this time, they feed half the year in our area. When daylight hours start getting longer, the action in the area triples. The animals come in to feed in large numbers to cover their non-feeding time. The flowers bloom and so does the ocean.
In the summer the tourism starts picking up as school gets out so we get busier above the water as well. Alaskan cruise ships start coming through and more people are in town. It puts more boats in the water. Things really get busy in July and August.
It’s gorgeous during that time, I get choked up just thinking about it. The sun sets as we return home and some of the things we’ve seen during those twilight hours – it’s astounding.
Getting back to your career, tell us more about what it means to work with the animals. What does your job mean to you?
It all boils down to the animals, I have a kinship with them I guess you could say. I’m so passionate about the animals but at the same time I also understand the threats they’re facing. It means a lot to work with them, to feel a sense of responsibility for how their habitat is perceived and how they’re preserved.
And aside from that I work here because the reactions of our guests is its own reward. I mean, I re-live the experience each time I see a young child or a parent or whoever experience them for the first time. Or the 21st time!
Do you see a lot of different reactions? From emotional, to thrilled, to maybe even a little bit awestruck?
Absolutely. It’s different for everyone. People watch for different reasons, and if I can share and support any realm of knowledge and experience and encourage that learning and awestruck environment, it’s so powerful. People learn about what’s living just offshore, I mean I’d work to help any animal, from an orca to a giraffe to a polar bear. Our awareness of our planet and the damages done by captivity is improving every day. Captivity has played a pivotal role for many years, there’s no question, but to take people into their domain and talk about their habits and the way they live, that aspect is growing as well. They’re individuals with feelings, when you see the whales in their home it brings it home for the people. When people get off the boat and give me a hug, that makes it all worthwhile for me.
What it all comes down to is that this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Every day is a beautiful day in the office.