Get to Know Captain Tom: Whales, Wildlife & Ocean Addictions

Tour guides are great multi-taskers; they have to think on their feet, maintain conversations with everyone, and be able to keep customers entertained for hours on end. But that’s only part of the parcel for Captain Tom, who makes a point of incorporating marine conservation and education into every tour he leads. Tom isn’t only a nice guy who loves his job as a guide for BC Whale Tours; he’s an internationally qualified marine biologist who is passionate about sharing the intricacies of marine life with anyone who’ll listen. We pulled Captain Tom off the water to find out what wildlife touring is all about, what makes his job so great, and how conservation finds its way into his daily work.

Captain Tom in some drier climes than what he's normally used to
Captain Tom in some drier climes than what he's normally used to
First of all, thanks for joining us for a chat. You’re a marine biologist who lives to get out on the water. Where did your fascination with the ocean begin?

I grew up on the east coast of Australia and spent every day kayaking, surfing, canoeing and surf lifesaving as a kid. You get really addicted to the ocean, and I got hooked from an early age. It seemed logical for me to go to university and learn how the whole marine system works. And now here I am, living in Canada and teaching people about killer whales.

How did those early years on the water influence your decision to knuckle down and pursue life as a marine biologist?

I always knew I wanted to spend as much time as possible in and on the water, and I’ve always been intrigued by marine life. It never ceases to amaze me just how fragile and responsive animals are to external stimuli. Once I started my studies, I knew I was in for the long haul. I worked for another whale watching company in Canada from 2007 but went back to Australia to finish a Masters in Natural Resource Management and do field work out of Cairns. I came back to Canada in 2011 and have never looked back.

How did your love for the marine environment translate to becoming a tour guide?

Research is a lot of fun, but I had to get a job at some point. My parents are both teachers, so I’ve always had a fascination with teaching people. I’m also a very social person, so the whole transition was pretty easy. I knew I wasn’t cut out for office work, and I love to travel, so the tourism industry seemed like the perfect choice. Tour guiding kind of found me.

How did you find yourself on the doorstep of BC Whale Tours?

Captain Harold, the owner of BC Whale Tours, is really passionate about conservation, just as I am. The animals are his main concern and he feels he has a responsibility towards them. I didn’t think I’d be running whale tours again, but I fell back into it after I saw how Harold ran his business. After building so many incredible encounters with Orca and Humpbacks in these waters, I can’t imagine doing anything else. I can honestly say I love my job.

Your job couldn’t be further from the standard 9-5 gig. Can you run us through a day in the life of Captain Tom?

It’s pretty quiet at the moment because we’re in the middle of the off season, but when the whale season kicks off, we run tours around the clock from mid March to November. We usually get up at 8am and get the boats ready for a day out, then we pick people up from their hotels and get them on the water. We focus on educating people about the animals, the environment and the local area, and introducing them to new encounters with these animals. In the summer we run about 2-3 trips a day (up to 4 hours), 7 days a week, so it’s pretty busy. By the end of the day you usually have one beer and you’re out cold. Then it’s up again early the next day to do it all again. When I do have any days off, I’m back to the water scuba diving, surfing or anything really.

When is the best time to head out and see these animals in action?

From the end of April to October, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see whales. Just before the whales start their migration from September through to November, they tend to get really friendly and curious. Sometimes they even rub themselves up against the boats, which is amazing to watch, but also a little scary because they are 30 tonnes. We also see a lot of sea lions, elephant seals, and even black bears on the coastline, so we run wildlife tours in the off season.

Conservation is central to what you do. Does this also play a major role in how you run your whale tours?

I’ve worked with some really interesting conservation projects, and I believe it all comes down to education and prevention. We focus on that quite a bit on our boats, and that stimulates a pretty emotional response from clients when they see these animals for the first time. We try to inform people about how responsive the marine environment can be, and a lot of our clients take that away and change small parts of their lifestyle, which is great! If you can teach people to be more responsible and in tune with the world around them, then there’s a bit more hope in the future. That’s my goal and that’s what I’m trying to do. If it changes one person, it’s all worthwhile.

I’ve run tours on flat, calm days when the sun is going down and the animals are just playing out in the ocean. They can be very cheeky and try to scare you by going down in one direction and breathing very loudly on purpose, just to see you jump.

Wow, that’s really inspiring! What are the best parts of your job?

I’ve had some mind blowing trips on the water, but the best days are when all the residents (whales) are together and there is a lot of activity on the water. All the animals come close to the surface and are in a happy mood, breaching together. On days like that, customers always come back with a big smile on their face. That’s the best feeling.

Most memorable tour you’ve led?

I’ve run tours on flat, calm days when the sun is going down, there are no other boats around, and the animals are just playing out in the ocean. The best trips are when the animals start to play with you. They can be very cheeky and try to scare you by going down in one direction and breathing very loudly on purpose, just to see you jump. Some days I just can’t believe I get paid to do this. The best part is that it happens a lot!

What about the tours that make your job tough?

It can be tough when there are no whales. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen from time to time. It’s pretty difficult to keep everyone happy, but we usually have a pretty good idea of what our sighting chances are before the trip and give customers the option to reschedule. You can always tell when you’ve got a really good captain when people see no whales on the tour but they still come back with a smile on their face.

After several years on the job, what do you think makes a good tour guide?

A good wildlife guide needs to do more than just drive a boat. They need to be passionate about the water and conversation. They also need to have some showmanship and be able to pass their knowledge and experience on to all walks of life. Also, they need to be pretty tough. It’s a stressful season in the summer, so you need to be passionate about what you do.

Do you have any tips for people who are interested in joining a whale watching tour?

It’s good to be mindful that whales are wild animals, so they can be unpredictable at times. In the wildlife watching game you never know what you’re going to encounter, so my word of advice would be just to stay happy and positive. Also, you’re going to be out on the water for some time, so dress warm and bring an extra layer or two.

We’ve got a tough question for you to wrap things up: If you could take any wildlife tour, anywhere in the world, where would it be?

I can only pick one place!? But there are so many to choose from! The sardine run down in Argentina would be amazing to see, along with the heron run in Norway and the great whites in South Africa. Antarctica is also on my bucket list, but so are the sperm whales in the Caribbean. Oh, and Galapagos! I could keep on going…

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