Not Just a Fluke: Having a Whale of a Time with Dr. Gillian Taylor

Gillian Taylor leaning over the tank watching the whalesYou know how kids do that thing where they’ll happily watch the same movie 800 times and not get bored with it? For my sisters and me, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home was one of those movies.

In retrospect, ‘the one with the whales’ (as it’s affectionately referred to by fans) was the best introduction to Star Trek I could have had as a young girl in the 80s. There are no scary villains or space battles, and it’s packed full of funny moments and quotable lines (‘double dumbass on you’ and so forth). There’s a bunch of adorable nerds bumbling around modern day San Francisco, a sassy lady who chooses her own destiny by leaping into a transporter beam, and of course, two humpback whales named George and Gracie—what’s not to love?

I’ve always suspected that the strong environmental themes of Star Trek IV have had a big influence on me from a young age, but it was only in my most recent viewing of the movie that I realised how closely my study and career choices align with those of Dr Gillian Taylor.

Just in case you need a refresher, Gillian Taylor (played by Catherine Hicks) is the whale biologist Kirk and Spock encounter at the Cetacean Institute in Sausalito. After much shenanigans, she gives our intrepid heroes the information they need to get the whales from her facility onto their ship, and ultimately returns with them to their own time period.

Dr. Gillian Taylor has no time for your cockamamie fish stories.

While I may not be a cetacean biologist (either now or in the 23rd century), I did study a bachelors degree in wildlife biology. After graduating, I went on to work in a world renowned zoo where I developed and delivered talks and tours on a range of threatened species. I’d never thought of Dr Taylor as one of my favourite Star Trek characters, or even as a particularly influential one, but her dedication to those whales has always made sense to me, and the Women at Warp podcast episode 8: Classic Trek Movies: The Undiscovered Women had recently got me thinking about her significance as a woman character in the Star Trek multiverse. So when I watched the movie again the other day and saw Gillian conducting her guided tour and talking passionately about her beloved whales, just like I’d done so many times over for an array of rare and beautiful creatures, well, they say whales weep not, but they can’t say the same about me. I was deeply moved by the similarities between myself and this particular woman of Star Trek.

These days I work for a government agency that protects both wildlife and their habitat, including marine environments, which means I’ve even had the opportunity to talk to the public about—you guessed it—humpback whales.

The picture has improved significantly from the bleak one presented to us at the start of Star Trek IV. Now that the majority of the world’s whaling operations have ceased, humpback populations have staged an impressive recovery. They’re still a long way from their former numbers, but they’re headed in the right direction. On this one issue, at least, we’ve succeeded in being the enlightened society Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek’s creator, believed we could become. To hunt a species to extinction is not logical, after all.

This behaviour, where a whale lifts its tail fluke out of the water and slaps it on the surface, is thought to be a form of non-verbal communication.

So, is it a fluke (pun very much intended) that I ended up on the same career path as Gillian, working to protect threatened species? No, I don’t believe it is. In discussions about representation in media you often hear the phrase ‘if you can see it, you can be it’, meaning that it’s so much easier to become something if you’ve had the opportunity to see someone like yourself doing the same thing. Without me even realizing it, Dr Gillian Taylor was making this little white girl’s dream job feel that much more achievable. The math and chemistry I’d been socialized to steer clear of became little more than stepping stones along the way as I pursued my passion. The path between me and my goal was just a little smoother because of the influence her character had on my developing brain.

Now that I have a daughter of my own I make sure she also has access to stories of inspiring women role models (both fictional and real) and fortunately Star Trek has some great ones. (If you’d like some recommendations for Star Trek episodes to show girls, check out the Women at Warp podcast episode 48: Star Trek for girls.)

I know there are a number of Trekkies who have pursued careers in fields like astronomy and engineering after being inspired by Star Trek, but I don’t know that there are many who can say they work in wildlife conservation because of it! So thank you, Gillian Taylor, for helping to make my dream job a reality.

 

  2 comments for “Not Just a Fluke: Having a Whale of a Time with Dr. Gillian Taylor

  1. R.W.
    February 7, 2017 at 9:34 am

    What an inspiring post! Thank you Ms. Simmons for sharing.

    • Emma
      February 8, 2017 at 6:41 am

      Thank YOU for such a lovely comment! This post was a lot of fun to write 🙂

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