Q&A: Kathleen McDowell,
Co-Founder of the SeaDoc Society

By Jasjeet Dhanota

Passion for nature has been a part of Kathleen McDowell’s life since as long as she can remember. That’s what led her and her late husband, Ron, to dream up the concept of the SeaDoc Society and team up with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center to make it happen in the late 1990s. Kathleen and Ron felt compelled to care for the wide array of wildlife in the Salish Sea, which had just become their new home.

Kathleen spent her childhood in New Jersey, but later lived in California before moving on to the University of Nevada, Reno, where she received her degree in Art and Design. From Nevada, Kathleen and her family relocated to the San Juan Islands, which is where she and her husband’s brainchild – the Sea Doc Society – became a reality. Since that time, SeaDoc has grown into one of the top marine research groups in the Pacific Northwest.

I spoke with Kathleen by phone this spring. We talked about the inspiration behind the SeaDoc Society, her favorite wildlife of the Salish Sea and how she feels about the future of the ecosystem.


Kathleen McDowell. Photo by Dorothy Davis

WHAT INSPIRED YOU AND RON TO START A PROGRAM LIKE THE SEADOC SOCIETY?  

I was in Nevada. I was fortunate enough to start a foundation that was dedicated to science, nature and education – the three things that I’m passionate about. Then in 1996, Ron and I were in the process of moving to the San Juan Islands. It was a place that I had been before. Ron grew up in Alaska, so he was happy to be back in that kind of environment and he would say that the San Juans were like Alaska without the mosquitoes. So it was perfect for him!

We spent a lot of time coming up here, looking around and talking to people. They would speak of the abundance of salmon, rockfish, shellfish, huge colonies of birds and the large kelp beds and eelgrass beds that are nurseries for many species. All of this was disappearing at an alarming rate and we wanted to find out why and what we could do about it.  That's when we contacted UC Davis, because they have one of the finest veterinary schools in the world and they had a wildlife program.

HOW DO YOU SEE YOUR ROLE AS A LEADER OF SEADOC?

Well I'm not a scientist, so I think my role as a leader is to make a connection between science, nature and the community so that we can all learn how to thrive together. I'm sort of the connection between the science and the community.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED WHILE CREATING SEADOC?

Opening up communication lines between the scientists who were separately doing work.  SeaDoc Society brought those scientists together and collaborated on the larger picture – and to bring that back to the community and voice those things. It looks so beautiful here that people don't think there is a problem until you start looking closer. That was the challenge.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE REWARDING MOMENTS ONCE YOU GOT SEADOC ON ITS FEET?

I think my role as a leader is to make a connection between science, nature and the community so that we can all learn to thrive together.

Seeing that some of these endangered species are being looked at by government agencies because we've done the science to prove that they are endangered. We have provided critical information so that policy makers can make those decisions.

WHICH SEADOC PROJECTS ARE MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU FROM THE PAST 15 YEARS?

They did a huge sea bird counting that I think was fabulous because nobody else was doing that. I also think the habitat mapping we have done and will continue to do is valuable. How do you know what's under your ocean unless you map it? These are habitats where the fish and mammals around here live. They have specific needs and wants. To be able to map that and to be able to protect them is enormously important. Studying the declining species is also very important, and connecting with the community.

DO YOU HAVE ANY FAVORITE WILDLIFE SPECIES IN THE SALISH SEA?

It’s hard to pick one, but I think my favorite right now is the tufted puffin. They are a fascinating bird and we used to have huge colonies in this area. Now, there are just a few very small colonies. We've done a study saying that this is a species to watch and now the government is looking at putting them on the Endangered Species List. I am delighted that we are finally going to protect these birds. I think they are the poster child of what's happening in this area.

Tufted puffin. Photo by William Warby

Editor's note: The Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission listed tufted puffins as a state endangered species at their meeting on April 10  just weeks after our interview with Kathy. A Scientific Status Review that was funded and co-written by SeaDoc played a pivotal role in this action. 

HOW HAS THE ORCAS ISLAND COMMUNITY SUPPORTED SEADOC?

They are hugely supportive and very interested in what's going on. It took a while for people to understand what we were doing, but the educational component has absolutely become one of the most important things that we do. We have an auction every year that is wonderfully supported.

WHAT DO YOU HOPE TO SEE IN SEADOC’S FUTURE?

Looking forward, we would like to expand. Relying only on Orcas Island and some of the other nearby islands is not enough to support everything that we want to do. This work is for everybody; it's not just for us on these islands. We're working hard to open up and reach out to the areas beyond the San Juan and the Salish Sea to make everybody aware of this. We're all connected.

The SeaDoc team is a dedicated group. I give them the credit for doing all of the hard work, because they do work very hard. We love them.

More from Volume 6: The Salish Sea