Roger McDonell sees his life as having come full circle.
A love for orca or killer whales inspired him to come out to the West Coast from Manitoba in 1978. Afterwards he worked in radio, community development, freelance photography, served a term as mayor of Campbell River, returned to videography and photography before having a boat built and buying into a whale watching tour company.
“It’s kind of a big circle, I guess,” McDonell says.
“Living in Manitoba, I read an article about killer whales,” he says. “Here it is, years later, I am out spending day after day with them.”
McDonell is content with where his life has taken him.
And it’s hard not to see why he would want to change things. He spends a lot of time during his summers on the waters of northeastern Vancouver Island exposing people to the majesty and beauty of the whales and other marine mammals that inhabit the waters of the Inside Passage. Although a part owner of Stubbs Island Whale Watching, McDonell doesn’t chain himself to a desk in the office. He has taken on multiple roles with the company he and his partners Heike Wieske and Geord Dunstan bought in 2011, including captaining the two vessels the company owns. He has a 60-ton masters ticket which allows him to operate Stubbs’ vessels.
McDonell already had a lot of marine experience before buying into the company. He owns an Eaglecraft vessel he dubbed Gizmo and had it built with the intention of chartering it.
He also had in mind using Gizmo for working with marine mammal researchers and film crews.
“Those were areas of interest that I had,” McDonell says.
After his term as mayor of Campbell River (2005-2008), McDonell continued to act on his interest in marine mammals and spend time working with the Whale Interpretive Centre in Telegraph Cove. Through the centre, he attended a conference at the University of British Columbia on marine mammal research.
“I’ve always been interested in marine mammals since I first came out to B.C. back in the 70s and had an interest in killer whales,” McDonell says.
“It’s kind of a pretty nice course I am on.”
When he saw what the researchers were doing he realized he wanted to share this information with the world. “So I kind of had this concept of using the boat to document the work they’re doing,” McDonell says. He ended up buying into the whale watching business which “kind of distracted me” from that initial concept.
“But at the same time it put me squarely in the middle of working with a lot of the researchers,” he says.
Through Stubbs Island Whale Watching, he does a lot of data collection and provides information for different research groups.
When Wieske and Dunstan, who owned Discovery Marine Safaris in Campbell River at the time, were looking to expand and found Stubbs Island was for sale, they decided they need a another partner. McDonell was mostly just intersted in it from an investment point of view.
As it turned out, all three partners had complementary skill sets and because of McDonell’s background interest in marine mammal research and his photography background, he was soon pressed into the promotional work. He was also used to being in the public eye and ended up being called on to do interviews about Stubbs Island.
“It just kept escalating and instead of being out doing stuff on my boat, I ended up doing stuff on Stubbs’ boats,” McDonell says.
He’s not complaining, he says, it’s just that he’s got a boat sitting at the dock he’d like to use more. Stubbs Island Whale Watching has two other captains who run and maintain the boats while McDonell fills in where necessary.
Stubbs Island’s fleet encompasses two large aluminum vessels. One is the Lukwa, a 40-foot vessel that carries 46 passengers and the other is the Kuluta, a 40-foot catamaran that carries up to 42 passengers.
McDonell still maintains a home in Campbell River but spends a lot of the summer up in Telegraph Cove. He ends up living in his boat when in the Cove. It’s moored in the harbour in sight of his office. Telegraph Cove is an interesting community, McDonell says. He is involved in the promotion of North Island tourism while still being involved in tourism initiatives in Campbell River. He says it’s hard to get away from contributing to community development once you get started.
“Once you get some of that stuff in your blood it’s hard to let it go,” he says, “especially when you see it really, in some senses, kind of floundering and needing the guiding experience. I have got kind of, like, 40 years experience with it now.”
It got focused during his days as mayor where he was involved in supporting tourism promotion but then “the public had different ideas for my future,” he says with a laugh, referring to his one term in the mayor’s chair. The mayor thing was an enjoyable experience, he says. It was a time when a lot of things were happening in the community and as mayor, he had a hand in them. “I still put my recycling out the door in the morning,” he says. It was a challenging time too.
“Just seeing the community, overall, changing because of the mill winding down despite our best efforts on council,” McDonell says.
After his term as mayor, he underwent an immense personal challenge with the passing of his wife Heidi. After going through that, he didn’t get involved in anything right away. It involved a lot of looking at where you have been and where you are going, he says. “And trying to appreciate what you have got,” he adds.
He came to Campbell River in 1978 and his first job was with the radio station and that gets you involved in the community. It even got him involved in photography when he was enlisted by the editor of the Mirror to take pictures of the community events he was always covering for the radio station anyway.
“He got me started in photography which, in a way, has made a big difference in my life,” McDonell says. From there he branched into underwater photography and that has had a big influence on his life as well. Now he’s merged all of those interests of his life into a scenario where he makes use of it all – marine mammal research, photography, public development.
The future involves more of the same, he says. He does have an eye on reviving the Whale Festival in Campbell River which ran a few years ago bringing to town people involved in the latest marine mammal research. “People asked when are you going to do it again,” McDonell says. That may be something on his horizon now, he says. Something new but still moving in the same direction. “I get the occasional Campbell Riverite who remembers me from my mayoralty days,” McDonell says with a laugh. “How you liking this? I go ‘yeah well, you know, different office.’”