'Her face just lit up': Whale advocate was at home on the water

·4 min read

Grand Manan marine biologist Laurie Murison was the happiest out on the water.

"Just every time you were on the water with her and you saw her see a whale, her face just lit up," said Heather Koopman, Murison's long-time research partner at the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station.

Murison, a well-known advocate of right whales and lighthouse preservation, died Sunday after a battle with cancer, according to her close friends and husband. Shortly before her death, Murison learned she would be receiving an honourary doctorate of science from the University of New Brunswick.

Murison moved to Grand Manan in the late 1980s after doing her Master's degree work on the relationship between white whales and their food supply. She worked with University of Guelph professor David Gaskin, who ran the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station at the time. She later moved to work at the station permanently and became its director after Gaskin died in the late 1990s, according to M.J. Edwards, director of the Grand Manan Museum.

As a marine biologist, Murison collected samples for international researchers, took photos and collected washed-up animal carcasses from the beach for examination. She was also a donor of specimen material to the New Brunswick Museum's research collections, especially marine mammal material for more than 30 years, according to Donald McAlpine, research curator and head of the New Brunswick Museum's zoology section.

"Laurie was a valued and irreplaceable collaborator," McAlpine said.

Murison and her husband Ken Ingersoll were instrumental in ensuring that after Delilah the Right Whale was found dead on Grand Manan in 1992, a detailed necropsy was completed to determine the cause of death, and that Delilah’s skeleton was salvaged for research and educational purposes, according to McAlpine. That skeleton is still on display at the museum.

Murison also gave educational talks on whale-watching trips, for the Road Scholar program and for the whale summer camp on the island. She even worked to move a shipping lane to prevent whale deaths.

But Murison wasn't just a marine biologist. She and her husband spearheaded the fundraising effort for Swallowtail Lighthouse and founded a museum inside it. She became president of the board of the Grand Manan Museum and worked to bring in more than $120,000 in grants. Those dollars would help renovate the building, do inventory and introduce its boardwalk, according to Edwards.

Murison also created a strategic plan for the museum at no cost.

"That was something I don't think we ever would have done without her," Edwards said.

After meeting Murison briefly in September 2019, Elizabeth Mancke, the Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Studies, was convinced the Grand Manan resident should be awarded an honourary doctorate.

Being a University of New Brunswick professor herself, Mancke requested that Murison submit her resume and offer some people who might be able to send letters advocating on her behalf.

Mancke said she was surprised to receive letters of international regard for Murison, who Mancke claims was the foremost scientist in the world for community-based learning.

"There are very few scientists who have spent that much time in one place, collecting data 12 months a year, working on multiple projects, connected to an international network of researchers, hosting people, doing community activism in the heritage sector, and finding the ways to link the two," said Mancke.

Bonnie Morse, project manager for the Grand Manan Fisherman's Association, said Murison worked collaboratively with the association to help them mitigate their impact on whales – a collaboration that isn't always common.

"It was about trying to find a solution that was good for the whales and good for the fishing industry," said Morse.

Koopman said Murison was strong, determined, and knew what she wanted to get done and how to make it happen.

"I think the island community as a whole as well as conservation efforts in the Bay of Fundy are going to notice this huge hole we have now."

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L'initiative de journalisme local est financée par le gouvernement du Canada.

Caitlin Dutt, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal