Eric Marshall lived his life in service to community and the natural world, with a deep knowledge and love of creatures large and small, from the tiniest nudibranch and all things aquatic in the Cowichan Estuary, to birds of all kinds and the giant Humpback Whales that travel up and down our west coast waters. He had a great gift for sharing his knowledge and love with others, to the special delight of children at our touch tank. This love of the natural world was a love he also shared with his wife Dorothy, his long-time partner in his life’s adventures. We celebrated Eric’s 90th Birthday at the Centre on October 25, 2020 and on December 17th he left us. Eric, thank-you for your gifts. We miss you. It is hard to even begin to say how much.
Eric grew up in England. A natural scientist and archivist, he was recruited to come to Winnipeg to create the world-class scientific research collection that bore his name: the Eric Marshall Aquatic Research Library at the Freshwater Institute on the University of Manitoba campus. It was one of seven regional Department of Fisheries and Oceans libraries lost to Ottawa’s cost-cutting in 2013 – a terrible blow not just to Eric, but to the scientific community. The sign from the library, retrieved by his son and brought to Cowichan Bay, was one of the artifacts from his life on display at Eric’s birthday celebration. Eric was our diligent Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre science librarian since we began in 2012.
Eric and Dorothy moved to Cowichan Bay in August 1996. Visiting the floating Marine Ecology Station in Cowichan Bay was early on Eric’s list. As Eric told it, Marine Biologist Bill Austen greeted him and said, “Great to have you as a volunteer – I’m would like to go to a sponge conference in Australia and you can look after the Station while I’m away!” Eric became Treasurer for the Station and when the Station moved to Sidney in 2001, he went with Bill in his boat as it was towed there. He stayed on as Treasurer for a couple of years as the old Board handed over the running of the station to a new one.
When the Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre opened in 2012, we were delighted when Eric volunteered his services and joined our Operations Committee. When we became a separate charitable society, Eric was elected to the Board and served as Vice Chair until his death. Eric was a dedicated volunteer docent and teacher at our fresh and salt water aquaria and touch tank, much loved by visitors of all ages, including our many school groups. He took amazing photographs of the animals and plants in the tanks, labelled and put them in a binder which remains a wonderful resource, with those creatures currently in the tanks at the front of the binder and photos of others at the back, ready to bring forward when a new specimen is added. Ever the meticulous science librarian, Eric also prepared notes on each of these creatures to support other volunteers in providing information to visitors. While he was at the touch tank, his wife Dorothy could often be found on the viewing platform with school groups looking at the birds on the Bay, with notes prepared by Eric to assist her in expanding on the life history of our local birds, along with a long piece of cord with key tags marking the wing spans of common birds that Eric prepared to provide a better idea of their sizes. Eric was both our Estuary Nature Centre librarian and a keen photographer for us and for the many other groups of which Eric was a part. Many of his beautiful photos can be found here on our website. We honoured Eric and Dorothy together as volunteers of the year in 2016.
Eric was a member of the Cowichan Valley Naturalists’ Society (CVNS) since arriving in the Valley. He worked with DFO on surveys of juvenile salmonids in the Bay for a number of years, hauling in the seine net while DFO staff counted the fish in the net. Eric was also a regular on the Valley’s November to March weekly swan and goose counts, soon expanded to include raptors, as well as at the Birds Canada waterbird counts taking place monthly from the south shore of Cowichan Bay. In the winter he also made monthly counts of beached birds on the south side of the Bay for Birds Canada and previously, as a volunteer with DFO’s Cetacean Watch, was called out to check beached seal or sea lion bodies washed up in the Bay. In 1997 he became secretary of the CVNS, served as president from 2004-2019, and edited the CVNS newsletter. He represented the Naturalists on the Cowichan Stewardship Round Table, served on the Board of the Somenos Marsh Wildlife Society and on an advisory committee for the Cowichan Watershed Board. Eric became a CVNS honorary life member in 2019. In 2019 he also took on the role of “caretaker” for the Cowichan Estuary’s Internationally recognized Important Bird Area.
Between 2005 and 2008 Eric and Dorothy spent time each winter in Hawaii working with a humpback whale research team based on Maui monitoring the comeback of the previously endangered humpback whales. The many photographs Eric took of humpback whale tails were added to the Happywhale database and he would regularly receive notices from the system telling him where his whales were seen. Most spend the summer months feeding in Alaska, although three headed to Kamchatka one summer to feed. One of the whales he and Dorothy saw in Hawaii was regularly seen feeding in Alaska and one summer decided to head south to Mexico for a change. Eric provided many informative talks throughout the Valley on the Humpback Comeback.
Prior to coming to Canada Eric took part in many amateur dramatic performances. Locally he was part of a CBC reading of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Cowichan Theatre, as one of those acting out the story on the stage as it was read, and won prizes for his poetry readings at the Cobble Hill Fair. Eric and Dorothy regularly attended Duncan United Church where Eric was an occasional lay reader, deliverer of “The address to the haggis” at the Robby Burns Night dinner and a reader in the Church’s reading of A Christmas Carol. Eric, along with Dorothy, was also a member and volunteer with the Cowichan Historical Society, the Chemainus Theatre, the Cowichan Theatre, the local Friends of the Library Society, and was a teacher/presenter for Elder College, as well as a member of the Elder College Advisory Committee.
Eric was a good, kind and generous human being and will be greatly missed.