Chapter 32: Saturna Island 1955-1960


“…between the Scylla of commercialism and Charybdis of stuffiness.”

– Harold Weir, Vancouver columnist


Within two years of returning from Scotland, Cowan was presenting the idea of television shows to the ‘B’ and other wildlife scientists at the 20th North American Wildlife Conference:

…the printed word will only educate the already sympathetic and that visual materials as by television and motion pictures or the demonstration of a personal approach are the only ones likely to make inroads on the very large group of apathetic or unsympathetic in the populace. These then should be our tools of evangelism, while the written word keeps the interested informed. Educational effort is also best directed to the leaders in the human community, as whether we delude ourselves or not, they are the people who influence the decision and actions of our fellows.

He launched immediately into television after the conference, starting with a single program, Exploring Minds, that involved the dean of medicine and two UBC academics. It was the first of the CBC University television series. According to Cowan, the CBC producers liked it and asked him to come back and do something else. “The TV adventure was really fun… The first one was done live, and that’s hair-raising.” That first series was called Fur and Feathers, for which they did 52 quarter-hour programs for children.

The Living Sea series was next, first airing in May 1957. It was longer, at half an hour each week on Thursday nights. CBC assigned a producer, Ken Bray, and a cameraman and they spent part of each summer with Cowan getting live material photographed on film. CBC advertised it as “the fabulous seven seas of the world come into focus as indoor oceans on your television.” The first episode opened with Cowan showing a model of a volcanic island and how it formed the “Cradle of Life.” Each subsequent episode developed the theme of life in different marine environments. The first series was done on a shoestring, and for his efforts Cowan received the princely sum of $300 a month. He used whatever free sources he could find. “I was chairman of the [Vancouver] Aquarium committee for a while, and I had free run of the aquarium at night, so we could do anything we liked … so long as you didn’t end up with dead animals.” His 1953 grad student Murray Newman had started as the head of the new Aquarium and was happy to hand him the keys to promote the educational services of the institution.

Cowan also developed his own outdoor aquaria at Jim Campbell’s farm on Saturna Island overlooking Plumper Sound at East Point (in what is now Gulf Islands National Park Reserve). He’d take his family for the month of August. He would take students camping over long weekends, travelling in a 19-foot clinker-built (lapstrake) cedar boat called Tuchi. Cowan clearly had found a way to combine his work, his education interests, his family’s interests and a perfect outlet for both he and Garry’s passion for molluscs.

That passion not only led to he and Garry co-naming a chiton but having both a chiton and a dipperclam named after him, with which he shared no characteristics except occasional habitat. All in all, Cowan had one vole, two molluscs and an amphipod named after him, which provided a certain notoriety, maybe with the exception of the amphipods, which are a ubiquitous family of shrimp-like crustaceans commonly described as bottom crawlers and include sand fleas. 

In fact, he was becoming quite famous, since he was hosting a show that was selling around the world, from New Zealand to the United Arab Republic. Cowan admitted, “There was nothing like it on television. The only other one in the world was the BBC, based in their production office in Wales.” Living Sea aired in BC in 1957. When it sold to a US network, even before it was picked up and repeated nationally in Canada. The success of Living Sea led to his best-known series, The Web of Life, which first aired Sunday afternoons starting in October 1959 and ran for 26 episodes. It then ran nationally on Friday evenings throughout 1963. Cowan’s series won awards all over the world. The Vancouver International Film Festival recognized him several years in a row. The CBC sold Web of Life to Britain’s Granada TV network for $200,000 in 1960 [equivalent to more than $1.6-million in 2014].

Cowan described The Living Sea generously as “the first Suzuki film,” although it would be more accurate to say Suzuki was “the second Cowan.” Suzuki later admitted there was an intellectual legacy that he himself was late in acknowledging. The intellectual legacy for Suzuki actually had started earlier, with ecologist and conscientious objector Stan Rowe, a friend of Cowan’s. David Suzuki was one of his students. Vancouver columnist Harold Weir’s review in 1960 would have been instructive to anyone starting out in television. “Dr. Cowan’s success on this program has been due to two factors: first, his lively informality; and second, his ability to keep the thing between the Scylla of commercialism and Charybdis of stuffiness.” Fittingly, one of his last television shows was with Peter Scott. They cohosted an episode of Klahanie: The Great Outdoors in 1969 called “Wildlife in Danger.”  


Chapter 31: Coast 1953-1955
Epilogue: 2010