Her call to study and protect the natural world began as a child, exploring the mountain forests of Connecticut with her brother. By age six she was studying frogs, snakes and turtles. By ten she was fascinated by how animals communicate. By thirteen she knew she would study whales and dolphins. A free-thinking creative child of an artistic family, she also knew the life of lab coats and academia wasn’t for her, even though there were few opportunities and female role models in the sciences for girls in the mid 1960’s. But when world-famous chimpanzee researcher, Jane Goodall, appeared on the cover of National Geographic it opened a door to a world of possibilities for her.
“I grew up thinking outside the box. Perhaps being outside the box all my life allowed me to do the things I do today. I don’t give in to personal limitations, I just do what I think needs to be done. That’s frustrating for some people, but it keeps me on the front lines of things.”
Her tenacity and independent spirit propelled her through a two-year self-designed diploma curriculum of biology, communication and animal research at American University. With a Magna Cum Laude biology diploma under her arm and a stint as a graphic designer for Good Morning America, she moved to California to continue her education and follow her calling to study cetaceans.
In 1977, the 19-year-old whirlwind connected with dolphin communications research- er, Dr. John Lilly in Los Angeles. In two years Alex catalogued over 2,000 recordings of bottlenose dolphins and learned about working with marine mammals and audio equipment.
“I would go into that room and fall into their world. I had found a treasure cave, the next door to my life. I kept slowing the recordings down, thinking these are signals from an intelligent mind.”
Following her passion for animal communication, she secured permission from the local Oceanarium to listen to, record andswim with their captive dolphins. Another door opened a few months later when their resident killer whale, Corky, gave birth to the first live calf in captivity. Alex stayed awake for days recording the event, then on a schedule of 12 hours a day or night, a month at a time.
“The killer whale sounds really struck a chord in me. So different than the fasttalking hyper dolphins. They were slow, polite talkers, deliberate in their activities.
“I began to feel and understand the heart- wrenching experience of animals in captivity.”
For two years she catalogued their sounds which she divided into 62 different categories. Her goal was to apply her findings in a study of wild whales and began her search for Corky’s family. She reached out to Dr. Michael Bigg, a marine biologist for Fisheries & Oceans Canada, who was studying killer whales of the British Columbia coast and had just devised an identification system based on distinctive markings and dorsal fins.
“Dr. Biggs was a rare scientist that didn’t ignore me because of my youth and lack of advanced education. He sent me pictures of Corky’s mother and her A5 Pod and told me to go to Alert Bay where I found them the first day.”
Alex soon met and married Canadian wildlife filmmaker, Rob Morton, and together followed the killer whales to the Broughton Archipelago on the northern coast of BC where they raised their son in a remote settlement and devoted their lives to studying resident and transient killer whales. Tragically, Rob lost his life while filming at sea and Alex soldiered on.
“Following your calling is like being on a dark trail in the woods. Suddenly there’s a little lighted area that shows you a few feet ahead and a bit farther, and you say that’s where I belong, I’ll follow that. It’s still like that for me but the trail is very different. Today I’m fighting for the animals’ survival, constantly thinking about how I can do this.
“I helped save the wild pink salmon of the Broughton Archipelago once. We have to save them again because the measures put into place, we knew weren’t going to be permanent. If we stop, the wild salmon will go extinct, the orca won’t have food. The lights will go dim here. Salmon feed over a hundred species. They built the soil. When I look in my grandson’s eyes I fear for what he might face.”
However, as we push our planet to breaking point, incredible people around the world are stepping forward and positive things are happening. Conservationist and author, Paul Hawken, says those who are intervening for the wild world are the immune system response of the planet.
“I don’t call myself an environmentalist; I’m just a woman cleaning house”.
You fall in love with the place and with the species you’re studying and you see they are being destroyed and it’s your job to do something about it.
“Jane Goodall said she was fortunate to be gifted with enormous energy and a very fit body. I am too. This old body is such a workhorse. I do get depressed and sometimes I’m exhausted and don’t want to do this anymore. But I’m like those little ponies on the northern islands who just put their heads down and wait out the storm. You build up endurance. You have to be that support system inside yourself.”
Alex believes that the most important thing is to take care of yourself. If you are a key component of what something needs to survive, you need to survive. You have to keep stoking the fire with good fuel.
“I know so many environmentalists that have burned out and simply vanish or die. One of the most important things is not to be angry. Anger is exhausting and eventually kills you. You have to replace it with love and let that be your fuel source. Find something you love to do that isn’t work. I play guitar. I have to have a dog in my life.”
One of her greatest joys is motherhood, and is thankful for the love and support of her grown son, daughter-in-law, teenage daughter and beloved grandson. Her joy also comes from the animals of the wild world and pride in her accomplishments.
Being adopted by a First Nations family and given the name Gwayum’dzi, Big Whale. An honourary PhD in 2010 for her work in sea lice research. Earning income creating prints of local fish species in the Japanese tradition of Gyotaku. Publishing on viruses in major scientific journals in collaboration with a virologist and statistician.
Alex answers her Call to Legacy by inspiring and supporting others in ocean conservation. At her research station she advises the young graduate students to be the ‘small mammal’ not the ‘dinosaur.’ To be agile and adaptable.
“I think the most important thing is to follow your heart. Build up your allies and don’t fall to self-barriers. If there’s a field of science you need to be part of to follow your path there’s always a way to access it. Don’t be afraid and don’t get angry. Just buckle down and do it.”
At Barnacle Babes, we aim to be interactive, engaging, proactive, purposeful, actionable and supportive to all women, their families, their ocean cause and sport.