Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Ocean Literacy for Disabled Children in “Cornubia”

John Hepburn is one of our Sea Champions and an education volunteer. He’s been out and about in schools in Plymouth delivering the MCS Cools Seas workshops teaching children all about the wonderful marine life in our seas and how to help look after it. But John is also involved in another exciting marine education project which he’s kindly told us all about:

“Wow!  How cool is that?” was Katie‘s response to the announcement that we were going to look at the seabed beneath our feet using our baited lander.  Katie was one of four children who were about to undertake a voyage of discovery around Plymouth Sound and its estuaries in “Cornubia.” “Cornubia” being a beautifully restored Bristol Channel pilot cutter, built in Polruan in 1911.

The Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Trust runs these day trips for disabled children from Devon and Cornwall between April and October, sailing out of Mayflower Marina in Plymouth.  They give the children and their carers, the experience of sailing in a classic yacht which is much less spartan than most other boats used for sail training-type activities.  The children learn about sailing the boat; they help set the sails and those who want (nearly everyone) get a chance to steer.  

My day starts a few hours before the children arrive because as well as doing the marine biology, I am first mate, so there’s a lot to be done to get the boat ready for sea and I also get the technology – microscope, TV, computer ready. Then there’s the bit I really enjoy – collecting the samples to give the kids a glimpse of ocean life through the life on the pontoons.

Some things are guaranteed like barnacles, mussels, hydroids and seamat. With luck there will be a small anemone, a keel worm, and with a good dollop of luck a feather star too. There are always amphipods burrowing in the biofouling, and they’re quite exciting under the microscope.  Skeleton shrimps are pretty cool too. 

All these go in a translucent plastic food container and under the microscope, which displays on a large TV in the saloon on-board.  Reactions from the children when watching vary with cognitive ability.  For some it’s just funny wiggly things on the screen, others are fascinated and ask searching questions. 

I also put samples of seaweed in large plastic ice cream containers so they can see the different colours and feel the textures of the different species or of different ages.  We can see that stuff settles and grows on the weed too, and on the boat.  “Who likes to eat seaweed?”  “Yuck!”  (Although there are a very few that like it.)  But they’re all surprised to find that seaweed is used in ice cream. 

The children arrive, and then once in their lifejackets, we walk down the pontoon, past “Cornubia,” to the very end.  Then we all take two deep breaths, and I ask them why we breathe, and where the oxygen comes from.  Plants, trees, they invariably tell me.  “And half of it comes from the plants in the sea,” I tell them.

We talk about plankton, small stuff and big stuff, plants and animals, things that spend their whole lives in it and those that spend only a part of them, what plankton eats and what eats plankton. Most know the blue whale eats plankton, and is the biggest animal on earth, ever.  Some know about basking sharks, and a few, the whale shark.  Very few know about the sunfish.  But it’s a neat fact that the biggest sea mammal, the biggest shark and the biggest bony fish are all plankton eaters.  

Next up, the lander. (Lander is actually a rather grandiose term for an aluminium tube with a CCTVcamera suspended within it.). Once seated safely in the saloon we get the second mates to deploy the lander, by shouting, “Dive, dive, dive!” in best submarine movie fashion. On the TV we see it slipping beneath the surface, a glimpse of the weed on the pontoon, the passing shadow of the boat’s hull then the bottom appears just before the landing on the seabed.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nxWaP0BUxTo 

Usually first up are the zombies of the deep, netted dog whelks.  They emerge from the ooze like the un-dead rising from the grave and stumble around looking for prey.  Not for the squeamish, but kids tend to like that sort of thing.  And we get other things too – gobies, shore crabs, spider crabs, pipe fish, sea slugs, wrasse – all seen in glorious technicolor.  

Once we’ve done with the microscope and lander (the attention spans can be quite short), then we brief the children on safety on board and off we go to sea!  

We tailor the day trips to suit the abilities of those on board.  Disabilities have included Autism, Epilepsy and Down’s Syndrome. The basic plan is to start with an easy motor up the river, to get them used to being afloat, and set the sails on the way back down after passing under the Tamar bridges.  Those who can and want to help, pull the ropes, steer, keep a look-out, make the tea and do the washing up.  

We give the children a specially written guide, a bit like the “I Spy” guides for them to record what they've seen. The guide has plenty of marine life for them to look out for such as birds and mega-fauna, as well as things to help them understand the human and physical geography of the area.  

After lunch we go into Plymouth Sound and do some real sailing.  The children are divided into port and starboard watches, and work as teams pulling in the foresail sheets. Once we've trawled for plankton, if the sea state allows I set the microscope and TV up in the saloon again, while we’re out in the Sound.  Otherwise it has to wait until we are in calmer water.  Then, having covered a Petri dish with drops of water from the sample with a pipette, we can see what we've caught.  

Once we've waved goodbye to the children the crew gather back on board to reflect on the day.  The reaction from Mungo, from Doubletrees school sums it up well. He said, “I really liked looking at the sea life through the microscope and underwater camera.”  These sailing excursions are really valuable for the children.  They increase their confidence, coordination, motor skills and team-working.  But we also show them that the sea is an amazing place, amazing things live in it, people do amazing things in it and that they are all linked.  

Wow, what a fantastic project! If you'd like to know more then check out John's report here

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