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Celebrated animal behaviourist dies

A retired Memorial University professor affectionately known as “the Whale Man” passed away April 14.

Dr. Jon Lien, founder of the Whale Research Group (WRG) of Memorial University, died after a lengthy battle with a degenerative physical and mental disease.

His friend and colleague, Dr. Bill Montevecchi, said it was a privilege and an experience working with Dr. Lien.

“He was as much an inspiration as friend for me,” he said. “His enthusiasm, leadership, courage and strengths were both infectious and legendary. What he did for the well-being of whales and fishermen in Newfoundland are of global proportions, and rightly so, as Jon is internationally, nationally and provincially renowned for this work.”

During his storied teaching career, Dr. Lien became known as the professor who invented thinking outside the box, using the ocean as his classroom.

And as a recipient of both the Order of Canada and the Order of Newfoundland and Labrador, he is legendary for an educational and conservation campaign he waged in 1978. While studying the vocalization first of sea birds and eventually whales, he was struck by the animosity fishermen felt towards the behemoths of the sea.

The giant mammals would regularly get stuck in fishing nets, forcing fishermen to ruin their nets to free them. Dr. Lien believed there was room in the ocean for both.

His goal was to satisfy the fishermen and the whales. He and his crew – including students -- would paddle a rubber Zodiac alongside the giant mammal, calm it, and then gradually release its head and fins, pushing it free of the net.

The result was more than 1,000 whales were released from fishing nets over a period of 30 years — primarily vulnerable humpbacks.

Born in South Dakota and of Norwegian descent, Dr. Lien studied animal behaviour at Washington State University. Accepting a teaching position at Memorial University in 1968, he enjoyed a career that spanned four decades until his retirement in 1996.

But beyond his ground, or ocean, breaking work, was his obvious zeal for life, said Dr. Montevecchi.

“Jon Lien lived and engaged in life fully and enjoyed and met head on everything that it had to offer. For me, it is this engagement and his family that are his greatest legacies.“
He was 71.