March 09, 2021- 9:30am Danny Catt, Naturalist, Photographer, Ecologist and World Traveller – ZOOM

Danny Cat
Fish, Wildlife, and Recreation Program Head  at  BCIT

Danny has led Adventure Canada natural history and photography programs for over twenty-five years. Danny studied wildlife ecology on Canada’s west coast and did postgraduate studies in east Africa.

Danny worked for many years as a Park Naturalist and planner in Kootenay National Park in the Canadian Rockies and his career with Parks Canada spanned thirteen years. He also taught at three universities in eastern Indonesia for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) before returning to Canada to teach at the post-secondary level which he has done for the past twenty-two years. Danny is presently the program head of the Fish, Wildlife, and Recreation program at the BC Institute of Technology.

When not teaching, Danny works as a biologist and photographer on expedition ships in the Arctic, sailboats on the Pacific coast, guides small groups on specialized itineraries, and lectures on cruise ships all over the world. Danny has a passion for travel and has explored and photographed the people, landscapes, and wildlife of close to one hundred countries. His photographs have been published in Canada and abroad with credits including the New York Daily News and Globe and Mail as well as Chinese Geographic, Macleans, and TIME magazines.

Danny has been recognized for his work and in 2016 was invited to join the Commission on Education & Communication for IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. In 2012 he was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and in 2011 was named a member of the prestigious New York City based Explorers Club. A past Rotary Scholar, Danny was selected for two years running (2009 and 2010) as the Canadian recipient of the Rotary Foundation Global Alumni Service to Humanity Award by Rotary International. The City of Burnaby, where Danny resided for many years, honored him in 2008 with its Environment Award.
In “Arctic Mysteries, Arctic Magic” Danny Catt shares photos of his adventures in the Canadian and European Arctic over the past 25 years. Danny, whose passion for conservation was sparked by travels throughout the province as a boy, has explored and photographed the people, landscapes and wildlife of close to 100 countries. His photographs have been widely published in Canada and internationally, including in the Globe and Mail and New York Daily News newspapers as well as Chinese Geographic and TIME magazines.

Our Speaker was introduced by Bill Hooker.


Sparked by the annual childhood summer camping trips with his father and six brothers, Danny Catt has pursued a long and exciting career as a naturalist. Over the years, his love of nature has taken him on many adventures across the globe. Danny has travelled to many countries and continues to wear many hats, but for the purposes of this presentation, he focused on his work as a naturalist and photographer on Arctic expedition trips.

Most commonly, scientists define the Arctic as the region above the Arctic Circle, an imaginary line that circles the globe at approximately 66° 34′ N. The Arctic Circle marks the latitude above which the sun does not set on the summer solstice. For every degree of latitude travelled North from here, there are up to eight days where the sun does not set.

One of Danny’s first Arctic gigs was taking photos of polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba. While not technically in the Arctic Circle, sea ice forms here making it an excellent spot for polar bears to hunt for seals in Hudson Bay. Polar bears are very adept at hunting  on sea ice, but unfortunately with climate change, sea ice is rapidly declining and making survival tougher for the bears, particularly over the summer months. There are also Arctic foxes in Churchill who follow the polar bears with the hopes of being able to scavenge on the carcasses that they leave behind.

Beluga whales also like to visit Churchill. Also known as sea canaries, these chatty whales will enter into freshwater rivers in the hundreds to rear their young. It was once thought that they used these rivers because they were slightly warmer than the sea, but biologists have since concluded that they actually enter river channels to avoid their main predators, Orcas.

As a teacher, Danny’s summers are free so, for the last quarter-century, he’s worked on expedition trips in the high Arctic. If anyone is interested in planning a post-Covid trip, he works for Arctic Adventures, a tourism company based in Mississauga. Sometimes he’ll work on up to three trips in a summer season. Some of the vessels that he has worked on are Russian research vessels adapted for eco-tourism, while others have been created specifically for adventure tourism. He currently works on the Ocean Endeavor.

Over the last 25 years, he’s taken trips between Greenland, Hudson Bay, Baffin, Devon Island, and the Northwest Passage. They often have special guests onboard such as authors Barry Lopez and Margret Atwood, famous Inuit artist Kenojuak Ashevak, geologists like Denis St-Onge, ornithologists, and other specialists and representatives from many different organizations. Each ship also comes outfitted with a fleet of zodiacs to facilitate up-close viewings of marine mammals such as walrus. Walrus, also known as the tooth-walkers, can actually defend themselves against polar bears pretty well with their sharp tusks, strong jaws, and thick skin – up to 3.5 inches!

Each trip also visits a local community to meet people and learn about their history, culture, and the use of resources. Northern communities rely heavily on narwhal, belugas, seals, caribou, and walrus to live. Whaling has been a huge part of the history and economy of the North. Whale oil, rendered from their blubber and baleen used to be shipped on Galleons carrying between 800-1000 barrels of oil, each worth a modern- day $5,000. The oil was once used to light streetlamps in Barcelona, Paris, and Milan and baleen plates were the plastic of their day – commonly used in corsets and misnamed whalebone. You can sometimes hear locals singing jigs in the gym about whaling.

Icebergs are also a common sighting on these trips. These large pieces of freshwater ice that break off from glaciers and ice shelves usually melt or ground onshore before ever leaving the Arctic. Less than 1 in 20 make it as far south as Newfoundland and only 1 in 140 ever make it further south than that. The collision with the Titanic was one of these rare incidents. Recently, Danny had the opportunity to camp on a floe edge of an iceberg with two Inuit guides. This is where open water meets the ice still attached to the shoreline creating a magical ecosystem that the Inuit call Sinaaq. Pods of Bowheads and Narwhal are easy to spot at the floe edge as they navigate the sea ice and feed.

Finally, on the topic of sea ice, Danny spoke briefly about the Northwest Passage.

Questions and Answers transcription

Question: Could you speak about the Inuit knowledge about the Franklin Expedition? I understand they knew a lot that the westerners didn’t know.

Answer: Yeah, there’s actually been a great film. Some of the explorers that were sent out to search for Franklin, one of them in particular got to know Inuit very well. And he heard the truth. He actually took the message back to the UK that the Inuit had seen members of the Franklin Expedition ending up having to go to cannibalism to feed themselves. And that was confirmed later, but that message was sent back to the UK and he was condemned for it. He said this guy was a British officer, no member of his crew would ever end up committing cannibalism or whatever the word is. So, there were others, absolutely. In fact, we were up on a trip and they’re still in the Inuit’s stories today. Still in the oral history of that time period which really isn’t that long ago when you’ve got a culture that has been around as long as it has been. But yes, the Inuit were aware and tried to help but unsuccessfully.

Question: I’m interested to know with the Northwest Passage beginning to open up and more people coming through, there’s talk about commercial ships even coming through. Certainly, the tourism is active as you’ve pointed out. What effect has that had on the Inuit people who live there? Is that welcomed by them or not? 

Answer: Yeah. That’s an excellent question. So, we’ve been doing small ship trips for 20 years. The first ships we did only had 60 passengers. In some of those early photos that I showed you, you could tell that the communities were super, super, super excited to have people visit. Now, I think there was a massive cruise liner that went through…

The west coast of Greenland has had more of the larger cruise ships because of those warmer ocean currents that keep the west coast of Greenland open from ice, a little more accessible, but the Canadian communities are not used to huge numbers of people. Now anytime, at least with Adventure Canada and other companies, going into any Canadian Arctic Community, they’re only allowed to go with the invitation basically of the community. And the community benefits financially every time a ship does come in. Sometimes only one ship comes in over the summer. Others it might be two that maybe make it in. Every itinerary that I’ve done, and I don’t think in the 20 years that I’ve been doing expeditions in the high Arctic have we been able to actually follow our original itinerary. And it’s not because the sea ice is frozen, it’s because the breaking sea ice is getting blown around, and a lot of these smaller ships are not icebreakers, their ice-hardened, but not icebreakers.

Question: My wife and I, we took a trip and wound up on Victoria Island in Cambridge Bay because it was where our points would take us and so we just went to see what was there. We arrived on the fourth of July and the ice breaker for the Northwest Passage was still frozen in at the port in Cambridge Bay, it was kind of an amazing thing. That was a wonderful trip for us. We asked the guide, they had put up a sign at the hotel about taking you out to the island to show you around, and we said that we wanted to do that. I think my wife and I were the only tourists in the whole place, but the guy says, “Are you birders?” We said, “no, no, no, we may do some fishing though!”  Anyway, I would recommend it to anybody who can get up there. 

Answer: Oh, yeah birders sometimes have specific demands. That’s wonderful, I was just up there two summers ago.  Unfortunately, this year the entire Arctic season is cancelled and last Summer the entire Arctic season was cancelled due to Covid. But the summer before, I did one of the Into the Northwest Passage trips, and we actually went to the very spot you’re describing, but there were four different ships that needed an escort by an icebreaker to get through the ice. And again, it wasn’t because it was solid, it’s just that all of the breaking ice is being blown around by wind currents and ocean currents. And there are ice charts, so we got an ice expert on board and you’re getting the info through the satellites etcetera. It’s an interesting part of the world. A very special part of the world, for sure.

Question: Could you talk a little bit about your perception of resource extraction from the North? How do you think that’s going to go?

Answer: Well there is some mining that goes on up there today. Fishing on the Canadian side is extremely limited. One thing that I didn’t get into on the Greenlandic side is the size of the fishing industry. It’s huge. So Greenlandic halibut, Greenlandic shrimp that gets caught and sent to restaurants in Europe, Denmark, etc…Mining – for resource extraction, there’s the diamond industry in the far north and other mining, but it’s still quite limited. I don’t know if that answers what you’re looking for. As Bob Dylan said, “the Times they are a-changing,” right? And they’re changing more rapidly than they’ve really ever changed before.

I mean, there’s lots of sad stuff up north. One of the highest suicide rates in the world is in the far north. I think young people see what’s happening around the world and what’s down south and they go, “well, why can’t I have it?” I mean, they see it on satellite TV. It’s not all wonderful. I mean it’s like anywhere. There are good points, bad points. Things are changing. They’re just changing so rapidly. I remember one of the representatives of the Greenlandic government was very excited about increased access of ships for economic development on the Greenland side. The infrastructure at this point does not exist in the Canadian Arctic. It just does not exist.

Question from P.Jones: Can you compare the NW Passage and the NE Passage.

Answer: There’s a book, if you’re interested in the Northeast passage, read the book called, I think, White death. It was written by a Russian. It’s the Russian ice breakers that go through there now. Very little other traffic goes through the Northeast passage. But yeah, if you want to read about that, it just was one of those you pick up and you can’t put down until you finish reading it. It tells a bit of the history of the Northeast passage.

Question from Ken Lee: Do we now have an “established” route through the NW passage (to go from Atlantic to Pacific). I understand that lots of ice has now melted, making access a little less difficult.

Answer: No, every time we go, we have to back up and go down a different way. We actually had the Canadian Coast Guard on with us three summers ago. Well, our ship is not an icebreaker. So, I should say for a non-ice-breaking vessel, the route will vary. For an icebreaker, I’m guessing they would have a specific route, the shortest distance to get them from A to B.




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