Grand Manan researcher remembered as 'great whale champion,' devoted community volunteer

·4 min read

Grand Mananers and members of the New Brunswick naturalist community are mourning the loss of Laurie Murison.

"I don't think anyone has touched the lives of islanders so many different ways," said M.J. Edwards, a friend and co-worker from the Grand Manan Museum.

The co-director of the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station died Sunday at the Saint John Regional Hospital at the age of 61 from complications of cancer.

Murison was known for her passionate work to save North Atlantic right whales and historic lighthouses.

Melissa Robinson/Facebook
Melissa Robinson/Facebook

"Laurie was a multitalented, multitasking phenomenon," said Edwards.

She was "always working to educate those around her, to support wildlife conservation, and to preserve history," said Heather Koopman of the research station.

"It will take generations before another individual arises to give to our community what Laurie has uniquely conjured with her hard work, her vision and her self-effacing magic," said Grand Manan photographer Peter Cunningham.

"In my version of heaven, Laurie will be seen sitting on the Throne of Highest Respect," Cunningham said. "I am in awe of what she has accomplished."

Murison's many achievements include some of the original research that linked right whale deaths to shipping lane traffic.

Grand Manan Museum/Facebook
Grand Manan Museum/Facebook

She was part of the group that helped get a dead whale named Delilah to shore in 1992 and get a necropsy done, said fellow researcher Moira Brown.

Delilah's skeleton is now in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.

So began the effort to move the shipping lane, which eventually happened in 2003.

Nearly 200 right whale calves were born in the next decade, said Brown.

Murison started researching right whales about 35 years ago for her master's degree at the University of Guelph.

In the years since, she continued her own research and helped many other students with theirs.

Grand Manan Museum/Facebook
Grand Manan Museum/Facebook

UNB announced last month that it was awarding Murison an honorary doctorate of science.

At the time, Murison said she enjoyed doing what she could "to improve the knowledge of marine life in the lower Bay of Fundy and to pass it forward."

"There is so much more to learn," she wrote on Facebook.

"I feel honoured for being able to try to help North Atlantic right whales but wish the situation now was so much better than it is. I hope things turn around soon."

She also said she had enjoyed working with other researchers and conservation groups.

"While we haven't always agreed, it has been enlightening," she said.

Murison was well respected in the scientific community, said Elizabeth Mancke, Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies at UNB.

She spoke with deep knowledge but could get her point across to a broad audience, Mancke said.

Murison was "a walking encyclopedia on any life of the Bay of Fundy," said Alain Clavette, the CBC birding columnist.

"It was thanks to her that a lot of projects involving birds in the Bay of Fundy saw the light," he said.

Murison co-ordinated many projects to protect habitats, individual species and to save injured birds and animals and flew aerial census surveys of right whales, said her obituary from Ells Funeral Home.

Her commitment resonated with Grand Mananers.

"They recognized how dedicated she was to the community, not just the marine environment," said Mancke.

"She has won over so many people with the work she's done," said Edwards, "people who maybe saw her as an outsider at first."

Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station/Facebook
Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station/Facebook

The Grand Manan Fishermen's Association said it appreciated Murison's "practical and pragmatic approach," and her expertise was "invaluable" to them.

"Whether it was attending our meetings, providing educational materials, her countless hours as a spotter ... or most recently on our ropeless gear trials in 2018."

"She had incredible grace and passion," said Brown. "She didn't let her passion get in the way. I think she was the most cool, calm and collected person I ever met."

Murison is also credited with creating the Gaskin Memorial Museum, named after her graduate adviser and the founder of the research station. She also curated the Gaskin moth and butterfly collection for the Smithsonian Institution.

"She was a true natural historian," said Brown.

She gave public lectures, taught high school and university students and wrote interpretive signs for hiking paths. She hauled building materials and laboured to restore historic buildings, including the Swallowtail Lighthouse, the Light Keepers duplex, the Winch house, and the elevated timber walkway and the schoolhouse near the Grand Manan Museum.

She was a prolific fundraiser. As recently as November, Murison was still campaigning for the Nature Trust of New Brunswick to protect Ross Island between Grand Manan and White Head.

Eric Allaby/Facebook
Eric Allaby/Facebook

Those looking to make donations in her memory are being directed to the Swallowtail Light Keepers Society, Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station and Charlotte County Cancer Society.

Murison assisted her husband Ken as volunteer light keeper for the five remaining lighthouses on the island.

Some islanders are sharing their favourite photos of the Swallowtail lighthouse in tribute.

Murison was "a shining light in the Bay of Fundy," said the Atlantic Wildlife Institute and "a valued colleague" in the emergency animal response network.

A public gathering is planned for spring or summer.