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The whale man

The exceptional legacy of Dr. Jon Lien

Campus and Community

By Lisa Pendergast

Where the icy waters of the Atlantic meet the rocky shores of Newfoundland and Labrador, one man used his empathy, work ethic and education to leave a whale of a legacy.

Though he is well-known for his time spent on the ocean, Dr. Jon Lien grew up in Clark, S.D., working on family farms and developing a love for animals. In 1968, after completing his doctoral studies in animal behaviour at Washington State University, he applied for post-secondary teaching positions in Winnipeg, Montreal, Hong Kong and Chile.

It was at a conference in New York City that Dr. Lien learned of Memorial University and an opening there for an animal behaviourist. He applied, visited and could not resist the invitation to be part of a university in such a unique place.

“Newfoundland drew Jon because of its beauty, culture and ocean setting. Here he could expand his knowledge of that unique culture and it’s fascinating marine animals,” remembers his wife Judy Lien. “It was quite a coincidence that we had chosen to get a Newfoundland puppy in 1966. Serendipity!”

Dr. Jon Lien at his home in Newfoundland.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Lien and his students at Memorial studied the different aspects of Newfoundland seabird behaviour for 10 years before he received his first phone call about whales.

Several whales were trapped in the ice in Halls Bay. Fishermen in the area turned to Memorial University after contacting several other officials who did not know how to help. Dr. Lien was not sure how to help either, but he agreed to go and study the animals’ behaviour.

“Jon had always been interested in animal vocalizations, so he took recorders to the entrapment, pitched a tent over his zodiac boat and camped on the ice with the whales for weeks,” said Mrs. Lien. “He and his students held information sessions with local school classes at this outdoor laboratory. A coast guard icebreaker finally succeeded in clearing a path to open water for the trapped whales and four of the five survived.”

Human-whale solution

This experience piqued Dr. Lien’s interest in whales — specifically how to free whales that were trapped. He learned that the marine mammals were most often trapped in fishing gear.

He cared about the welfare of the animals, but he was also able to see how devastating damaging fishing equipment could be to the fishermen who depended on it each day of short fishing seasons to support their families. Fishermen would become desperate and sometimes resort to shooting at the whales.

Dr. Lien attaches a whale alarm to a cod net.
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Lien had a better solution.

To prevent whales from getting snared in the first place, Dr. Lien developed a series of whale alarms, one known as the “Lien Pinger,” designed to make noise and keep them away from fishing nets. He set up these alarms for the fishermen free of charge, as part of his research. He fashioned rescue tools and techniques that are now used around the world.

In 1979 Dr. Lien created the Whale Research Group, an educational and conservation campaign which ran the official marine animal release program provincewide. Students came from around the world to volunteer their time for the chance to rescue a whale with Dr. Lien.

He also recognized the need for a partnership between biology and psychology to fully prepare students for thorough and comprehensive animal studies. This thinking led to the cognitive and behavioural ecology program (CABE) at Memorial.

Although he retired in 1996, students can still complete their master of science degree or PhD through the CABE program. The Whale Research Group also still exists. It is currently known as the Whale Release and Strandings Group and is run by two of Dr. Lien’s long-time assistants, Julie Huntington and Wayne Ledwell.

Dr. Lien’s empathy to both the whales and the people of Newfoundland and Labrador led to the rescue of more than 500 marine animals during his career and the improved livelihood of many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, as well.

Freeing a live humpback whale trapped in a fishing net.This, along with his advances in marine conservation education, earned him the nickname “the whale man.”

Devastating diagnosis

On April 14, 2010, at the age of 71, Dr. Lien passed away after a five-year battle with a mental illness.

Shortly after his passing, a former colleague, Ted Rowe, chaired a committee that led to the creation of the Dr. Jon Lien Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship is awarded to a full-time graduate student undertaking studies in marine animal behaviour, marine conservation, coastal community revitalization or a current fishery challenge. Graduate students Chelsea Lawrence, Victoria Howse, Simone Commenelli and Jaclyn Aubin are all recipients of the scholarship.

Rebecca LeDrew, a master of science student with the Department of Geography is the recipient of the 2018 scholarship. Her focus is on rural and cultural geography, specifically rural planning, development and sustainability issues in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Much like Dr. Lien, Ms. LeDrew is looking to get out of the classroom and into nature to further her education.

Rebecca LeDrew, 2018 recipient of the Dr. Jon Lien Memorial Scholarship.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“I was so happy to receive the Dr. Jon Lien Memorial Scholarship,” said Ms. LeDrew. “Thanks to this scholarship, I am hoping to travel to Friesland in the Netherlands to study a coastal region with an existing rural circular economy in order to draw comparisons and make suggestions for the implementation of a form of circular economy in rural Newfoundland communities. Geography requires a certain amount of field work, and it is an enriching experience to get outside of the confines of the university, take my research to a new level and expand my horizons.”

The play Between Breaths is another tribute to Dr. Lien’s life. Written by Memorial alumnus and honorary degree recipient Dr. Robert Chafe and directed by Memorial honorary degree recipient Dr. Jillian Keiley, the play goes backwards in time, telling the story of Dr. Lien’s inspiring career.

Recently, Artistic Fraud, the production company behind Between Breaths, made a cheque presentation to the Dr. Jon Lien Memorial Scholarship from funds collected during performances of the play.

From left are Dr. Robert Chafe, Patrick Foran, Judy Lien, Dr. Bill Montevecchi and Dr. Penny Blackwood at the Artistic Fraud cheque presentation.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“Jon thought outside the box, developing and enhancing opportunity, growing courage, advancing science and most important of all, changing attitudes,” said Mrs. Lien. “I appreciate the play for renewing peoples’ memories of Jon and I love the scholarship for helping to support students whose efforts will shape the future.”

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