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December 21, 2021

PaRx People: A Conversation with Dr. Sarika Cullis-Suzuki

Dr. Sarika Cullis-Suzuki is passionate about the oceans, nature, and how to effect change. She has hosted critically acclaimed documentaries for CBC, including The Nature of Things (Listening to Orcas, 2020; Kingdom of the Tide, 2020; the three-part Suzuki Diaries series, 2008-2011), as well as programs for Audible, The Knowledge Network, Ocean Networks Canada, and The National Film Board.

Dr. Cullis-Suzuki speaks out often on ocean issues and conservation, from classrooms to panels to media. Trained as a Marine Biologist (PhD, MSc), her research has taken her from the high seas to remote tropical archipelagos to the intertidal zones of her home, British Columbia.

She has been named an influential Canadian millennial by The Huffington Post Canada, and in 2020 was nominated for Best Host at the World Congress of Science and Factual Producers. She has served on various boards and committees, including those of the David Suzuki Foundation, WWF Canada, and the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea.

PaRx Director Dr. Melissa Lem sat down with fellow mom and nature advocate Dr. Cullis-Suzuki to learn about how outdoor experiences have influenced her career path and health, her love for and study of the oceanscapes of her childhood, and how parents can inspire their children to cherish and protect the planet.

Tell me about how you connected to nature as a child, and how that led to your career today.

It's 100% connected for me. I was really lucky that we would spend the summers together with my folks going camping in BC parks. We would just tootle around—it was really about spending time together, and in nature. And so those early memories absolutely influenced me in my career.

Sarika catching crabs with her father David, and with her sister Severn and mother Tara in the Stein Valley, BC. Photos supplied.

We spent time on the Sunshine Coast, and every summer we would go to the Interior and pick cherries and different fruits. This is a tradition my parents started when my sister and I were really young, because they wanted to show us the seasonality of our province. But the place we spent the most time is on Quadra Island. My folks got a little piece of land there way back when we were kids, and we have been going there ever since. Then I actually ended up doing my PhD thesis there on those same beaches. It was a very, very full circle moment.

It's no secret I spent so much of my time as a child down by the water. When I was two years old I learned how to snorkel before I could swim because my mom would put me in a life jacket, and slap on a snorkel and mask because I would just swim underwater—I just wanted my face in the sea. I can still remember when I was six years old on the intertidal zones of BC, saying to my mom, “I'm going to be a marine biologist, and you can be my assistant!” I was so serious but I had no idea what a marine biologist did.

And then fast forward to college, and it was pretty clear that's what I wanted to do. So those embers were lit when I was a small child, and I was very lucky to have parents who were keen and told me to follow my passion.

Sarika snorkelling as a child. Photo supplied.

I was actually thinking about this recently, because my dad came over for an Extinction Rebellion event a couple of weeks ago here in Victoria. And I took all my kids, and I thought, this is exactly how it was for me, growing up.

A lot of my first memories were of marches and protests. I remember camping at the protests in the Stein Valley, and in Clayoquot Sound. It was such a joyful experience because we were outside, we were celebrating these spectacular places, and we were together.

I think a lot about how the environmental movement should inherently be a joyous one because you're reconnecting with each other and with the land. And you’re fighting for something, to embrace and preserve nature and these beautiful places that we love.

How has nature been important for your health and wellbeing throughout your life?

Throughout my life nature has always been there for me.

When I did my Masters it was about the high seas, the areas of ocean beyond national jurisdiction, so I couldn't physically go there. All my research was in front of a computer—it was taking other people's data and synthesizing and writing them up—and so my entire thesis was done on a screen. And I said to myself, for my next degree I can't do this, I have to be doing what I love, being outside in the ocean. And that was why I decided, for my PhD, to come back to the intertidal zone on Quadra Island, because I needed to be rejuvenated by the environment.

Sarika helping out with local research on Haida Gwaii, BC. Photo supplied.

At the end of my Masters I was kind of down, because all the stuff that I was learning about was so depressing—the state of the oceans is a pretty depressing scene right now. So I knew I wanted to continue to fight to conserve oceans, but I couldn't do it behind a desk.

That was the best decision I could have made. Suddenly for my PhD I was back in the water and literally just immersed in the wonders of the sea, and learning about these creatures and fishes I didn't know. And that wonder and curiosity are really such an antidote to despair. So, funnily enough, being inspired by the ocean every day is what allowed me to continue on in marine biology.

I also think it's important that we talk about what nature is. For me simply being outside is a really wonderful way to reconnect. You don't have to be in ‘pristine’ wilderness to get the benefits. No matter where you are, even if you're living in a big city, you can still get outside and interact with the environment—and to me that is what matters.

Sarika doing her PhD research in the intertidal zone of Quadra Island, BC. Photo supplied.

The weekend before last, when the third atmospheric river came down here in BC, my nephews were visiting. And before they came I thought, the weather is going to be kind of crazy, I don’t know if we’ll be able to do much. But then once they were here we realized we could still do so many things. I put four kids in my cargo bike and then another on a scooter, and we just went out with all our rain gear on, and they had the best time even though there was nobody out, and it was pouring. Kids love puddles, and suddenly you have the elements in your face and you're talking about where water comes from. We were literally just in the park across the street but it felt like a real adventure.

When we came back after a few hours their whole moods were different. They were just relaxed and satisfied and happy to come in and get warm. And it was just so obvious that being outside is key to our health.

Being outside gives us that boost we need, as long as we’re able and safe. What's so unsettling now is we are seeing nature change before our eyes, the most recent example here in BC being the epic flooding.

Sarika teaching her kids how to swim. Photo supplied.

Where do you like to get your everyday nature time these days?

I’m a mom to young kids and the number of hours I have in a day are so limited. But last summer I got an electric trike, which has two wheels on the front and a bike wheel on the back. It's a front loader with basically a big bucket in the front, and I can put four kids in it with seat belts and a rain cover. And it has seriously changed my life! I know that sounds cheesy, but now I can just put the kids in there and bike them to their school, to their daycares and back, a 45-minute trip, twice a day.

I know no matter what happens in my day I get that time. I go rain or shine—it can also go in the snow—and I just don't use my car anymore. And I can tell how much it's benefitted the family, and mostly myself. We do the same route every day, and they can see the changes in the environment through the seasons. They’re pointing out bird nests, they’re feeling the wind on their bodies, they’re interacting with their environment all the time.

It's habitual, it's every day, and it's something we can do in the city. For us, it's been a great way to stay connected to the outdoors. I do all my grocery shopping on the bike—I can load it up with everything. So for me, this bike has been a life saver.

Sarika with her kids and nephew in her electric cargo trike. Photo supplied.

You launched a podcast, Wild Sounds of Canada, last year. How can paying attention to sound connect us to nature more deeply?

The audio realm has always been my favourite way of getting information. That probably again goes back to my childhood, when the CBC was always blaring from the radio, no matter where we were, in a car or at home. Listening is such an underrated sense, especially right now. We're so visually dominated—we're just always looking at screens and phones. So using your ears is really refreshing.

I remember this one exercise we did during the Audible shoot. We were out in a forest by a little stream, and they said, just close your eyes and describe to us what you're hearing. And as soon as you shut off your visual sense it's almost like the world opens up, this whole other realm. I was describing a stream that I couldn't see, and I wouldn't have known what was there if I hadn't been listening. I was describing the different types of birds and all these insects. It's a really neat exercise because a lot of the environment actually comes to us through our ears.

I really enjoyed creating that podcast. The funny thing was I was creating it in my son's small closet because it was the quietest place in my house. I didn't think that my house was very loud, but of course it suddenly had to be completely silent for recording, and I live on a main street with car noise.

Sarika recording Wild Sounds of Canada in the forest. Photo supplied.

When we live in cities we're accosted by all these anthropogenic sounds day in day out that have clear impacts on our health. And when you get away from these things, and you go into nature, your blood pressure goes down, your stress goes down, your heart rate becomes regular. We might not notice it, but that acoustic realm is very important to our health.

You’ve travelled a lot for work as a documentary host for the CBC. What’s the most interesting nature spot in the world you’ve ever visited?

I did a lot more travelling when I was younger—I don't know about you, but I'm finding it harder and harder to justify now. But when I was in my twenties doing marine research, I would say probably the most captivating place for me was French Polynesia, in the South Pacific.

There were these tiny little islands where the marine life remains like none I've ever seen. The diversity and abundance of fish were just unbelievable. We went to this one Marine Protected Area that was protected from fishing and development. It was really small; it wasn't even the size of a football field. I put my camera underwater and it was like a wall of fish, all different kinds, and the coral was incredible.

And I just put my hand underwater to film it, and this snapper came right up and bit me! I was bleeding, it was quite a large cut, and I just was not expecting that. Those fish were not scared of people—they didn’t seem scared of anything, they seemed very strong and healthy. It just really blew me away that the fish acted so differently.

Sarika and crew filming The Nature of Things in BC. Photos supplied.

But I have to say the place that is most special to me is this beach that I keep talking about on Quadra Island. The thing is, out of anywhere in the world, this beach is the place I know best. I’ve come here every summer, sometimes in the spring and winter, sometimes for most of the year, since I was five years old.

I thought I knew a lot about this beach, but then it turns out for my PhD I started studying a singing fish (the plainfin midshipman). And lo and behold when I started looking for it, this fish was everywhere, under so many of the rocks. It's a big fish—the alpha males are half a foot long. And the more I started learning about this fish, the more I got very humbled realizing I didn't know anything.

This fish took me on the most incredible journey. I learned all about how the males will make a nest for the females and then sing to get them to come and mate. At night time in the summer months if you go down to the water's edge, you can actually hear this fish’s song. It resonates out of the ocean and into the air, and it sounds almost like people chanting. It’s beautiful.

And I thought, how did I not hear this before? I must have just attributed it to an anthropogenic sound. In your brain you're not thinking an animal is making the sound. It seems easier to assume it's a Twin Otter engine or a nearby generator or something. But it is actually hundreds and hundreds of fish, singing together. I just love that. I thought I knew a lot and I didn't know anything. There are so many more questions than answers when it comes to this animal. I will still go down to that beach and hours will go by, and I’m just in a trance with everything that I'm learning and noticing for the first time.

Sarika deploying a DropCam on Quadra Island, BC. Photo supplied.

How would you feel if a doctor prescribed you nature?

At first because it's not something I'd expect I would, in all honesty, be surprised.

But at the same time I think if a doctor were to write it down and explain to me what the proven benefits are, it might actually carry more weight. If it’s being prescribed like medicine, then maybe you're more likely to take it seriously and actually put that time in. My dad always says that exercise is his medicine, and he does it almost every day.

I think a lot of us think we're outdoors a lot, but I bet if we actually tried to quantify it, we might be out there less than we think. What I like about being prescribed nature two hours a week is that you know you have to be accountable, you should log it at some point, and I bet that increases our chances of actually getting outside.

How have the experiences you had growing up spending time outdoors with your family shaped how you approach nature time with your own family today?

I think a lot about those moments when we were camping in parks in tents, and picking seasonal fruit, but the other thing my family taught me is that nature is everywhere around us. And so certainly that's something I've tried to instil in my kids as well.

In 2020 when the pandemic first hit, schools shut down and everything kind of just ground to a halt. And suddenly we were looking at things closer to home, finding things that we wouldn't normally discover. On our porch, for example, there are these spiders with these incredible abdomens, and one spider laid eggs in this big ball. My kids would go outside every day and check on the ball, and when the little tiny spiders hatched out of this ball it was the most incredible moment.

I think one of the best things we can do for our kids is to just follow their curiosity. Just take them outside and nature will do the rest. Nature is so powerful kids will inherently find it fascinating. I remember when my daughter was one, and I found her under the dining room table, silently eating an earthworm! She's a very tactile person—she still loves earthworms, there's something about how they feel.  She’s constantly rescuing them from puddles.

Sarika showing snails to her kids and friend. Photo supplied.

Something I find sad is that we actively teach kids that nature is gross, oh, don't do that, yuck!, and there are all these negative words we use. And that comes from us, it comes from adults. A child would never think that on their own. How they interact with the environment is with curiosity. When I was a child, when I was really interested in caterpillars or moths or beetles, my parents would say, wow, what did you find, show me. And that allowed me to continue to be curious. Whereas if somebody had said, oh that's gross, put it down, don't touch that, I think that connection would be severed.

I just want to make sure that my kids know that we are animals, we are not separate from nature. We can't live without nature, we depend on it, so we treat it with respect.

Even living in a city we're able to do that. When I find an animal in the house like a Daddy Long-Legs or a crane fly—or I even found a ladybug yesterday—I like that because I don't want to be living in a sterile box. I think we'd be surprised if we just opened our eyes a little bit to realize that there is a lot of life and nature around us, even if we're living in the city.

What tips do you have for parents who want their children to grow up loving and protecting the planet?

As parents the best weapon we have when it comes to teaching our children is just taking them outside. Honestly, just allowing your kids to be outside, to move their bodies, to embrace all life and not be disgusted by animals they don’t know, but again, treating them with respect and interest.

Last year when the pandemic shut everything down we started taking my kids out to the swamp—Ryo, my son, was five at the time. And for a kid, that is the best playground you could possibly visit. We didn’t have nets, so we brought a kitchen strainer and some buckets, and he was in heaven. We found so many different types of tadpoles and salamanders, water striders and various eggs, and so we just collected some and brought them back home to watch.

Over the next couple weeks, all these other insects we hadn't noticed in the water started appearing, small snails and insects. We took home this nymph, a dragonfly larva. After a couple of weeks, one day Ryo comes running into the house and he's like, it's hatching! So the whole family dropped what they were doing and just ran outside, and we witnessed this nymph turn into a dragonfly. I never knew how it was possible, but these crumpled up little wet wings hatch out of this nymph shell, and the dragonfly has to slowly expand and strengthen these crumpled little wings.

David and Tara picnicking with grandkids, and the dragonfly spreading its wings

This happened over the course of a day or two. You're watching an incredible metamorphosis take place. My dad was there too, and when he was a kid the swamp was his thing—it was his great companion. He'd go and spend every day in the swamp. And he had never seen that moment when a nymph turns into a dragonfly. So he grabbed a sandwich and he sat right in front of it, and spent a couple hours staring at it. It was magical.

And I didn't know how much was getting into my kid's head, but fast forward to later that year when he's in school, in grade one. And they did this exercise with the teacher, who asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And he said, “I want to be a swamp scientist.” (laughs) I never felt more proud. You can have all the screens, and all the distractions, but there is nothing more magical than nature.

So as parents, all we have to do is bring our kids outside and be patient, and spend time with them, and be curious with them. And it’s not that hard to be curious, right? Nature will take care of the rest.

Sarika’s son Kaoru with a banana slug. Photo supplied.

For more on Dr. Cullis-Suzuki’s life and work, check out her website here.

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