Making a splash in eco-tourism

Brooke McKinley and Capt. Drew Vevea, Outer Island Excursions, Anacortes, Washington

Article | Anacortes, Washington | 26 April 2022
Marine Naturalist Brooke McKinlay says that she has loved whales growing up in the Salish Sea area. Using her sociology degree and passion marine wildlife she enjoys educating people about the complex and amazing marine ecosystem as well as the natural and man-made threats to its health. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
“I love working on the boat because I get to teach people about a very important area in our ecosystem,” says Brooke McKinlay, a marine naturalist in the Salish Sea, in Washington state.

The Salish Sea which encompasses Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the waters in Vancouver, British Columbia, has a diverse marine ecosystem which includes killer whales, seals, and sea lions among others.

As we set sail on our 4-hour whale watching excursion with the Outer Island Excursions in Anacortes, the weather and temperatures look promising for a chance sighting of Humpbacks, Minke, Grey and Orca Whales, and the picturesque San Juan Islands.

“I get to be on vacation with people every day and that’s a privilege!” Brooke excitedly exclaims. “But more than that it’s the best opportunity to create a connection between our guests and the animals, that they can take on for the rest of their lives, and that’s what drives me. I get to essentially inspire people on a boat and help them become better ambassadors of the world with a special encounter with some whales,” she says with a big grin as she scouts the calm waters in the distance.

McKinlay who has a degree in Sociology, has been working on the Salish Sea for close to 16 years and is a native to the area. “I grew up on the island here. My sister lives up on the hill and my parents live across the way there,” she points out with much familiarity as we motor further north towards Vancouver. Her degree she says, comes in handy and she uses it “every single day” working with people from all over the world.
Among the wildlife that can be seen on the Outer Island Excursion tours from Anacortes to the San Juan Islands in Washington state are Humpback, Minke, Grey and Orca whales, as well as seals, sea lions bald eagles as well as other keystone species. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
“I've loved Whales since I was a little kid,” Brooke shares with a twinkle in her eye. “In terms of how I got into this job working as a marine naturalist, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she giggles. “I started with working in the galley with another company, and I learned a lot about being the face, voice and educator, which helped me a lot in terms of working with people and learning about this area before taking on this job.”

“And then I just couldn’t leave! What started out as a summer job has kept me working here all these years. And now here we are,” she beams. Just as she says that we spot our first pod of whales.

A good day for Brooke, whose role is very people focused, is when she gets to inspire people and make sure that they have a special experience on the boat trip. “Anytime people are inspired, and when they have a truly special experience is when I feel I’ve had a successful day,” she emphasizes. Highlighting that she brings attention to the pollution found in the water such as balloons and other plastics, as well as the various keystone species in the ecosystem.

“It doesn’t even matter if we see the whales breaching or not, but as long as people learn something and have a good experience, that makes me feel like I’m making a difference in a small way to help change the world and better it from an environmental perspective. I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t feel that I was making a difference,” she underscores with a serious tone in her voice. “And of course a good day is when the waters are flat calm and no wind,” she adds half-jokingly.

Captain Drew Vevea, pictured here with his father, pilots the boats for these daily excursions. His passion for working on boats started when he was growing up in Minnesota, which lead him to the Caribbean and now he calls the Salish Sea his forever home. ILO Photo/ John Isaac

Echoing those same sentiments about a good day on the water is Captain Drew Vevea, the captain of the boat whom we get a chance to speak to from his cockpit as he pilots the boat.

“Any day on the water is a good day for me honestly. I feel blessed to do what I do, and driving folks is a big passion of mine,” he shares. “I enjoy being out here all the time but especially on a day like today where we get to see orcas like we just did, is certainly the big ticket item,” he proudly grins.

Although he is passionate about his job and boats, Drew admits that he ended up in his line of work accidently when he took on his first job. “It’s a little bit of a happenstance. In my first real job I would dock boats on the Whitefish Chain of lakes up in Minnesota,” he recalls. “Then after college I decided to move to the Caribbean and began bartending. That’s when I met a few guys who were captains of a racing vessel who invited me to sail in a regatta.”

“Then I met another captain who asked me I wanted to work on boats rather than a bar, so I took the opportunity and ran with it and got my captain’s license. So it’s funny how my work with boats all came full circle for me, and now I am here.”

In discussing the impact that technology has on their jobs both McKinlay and Vevea agree that it is an important element as this helps them in a number of ways. Advances in marine navigation systems, fish mapping, engine monitors, VHF radios and now mobile phone based apps are essential in helping people in this industry more effectively interface with their colleagues and customers.

“Mobile apps help us in our communication, by sharing sightings and figuring out where we’re going and what we’re doing. Captains and naturalists use these apps to be able to GPS locations of whale sightings and types too,” Drew informs. “Being able to see the location of cell phones on other boats give us an idea of routes that have been travelled which is also very helpful to us.” Chiming in McKinlay adds, “I think that technology is definitely essential for my customers experience too.”

When asked about how he feels about his job, Drew responds with a wide grin, “It’s absolutely awesome and I love it!” A sentiment that is evident when speaking to Brooke as well. As he continues steering the boat, Brooke smiles excitedly and points to another pod of whales that have just been sighted.