By: Judy Mann-Lang
Celebrating Marine Education Outreach – connecting people to our oceans.
With great trepidation, the small girl gingerly stretches out her hand. “It’s okay, it won’t bite you” she is encouraged. Slowly she touches the sea urchin. Her hand withdraws quickly. “Ugh, it’s all prickly!” she exclaims, and sticks her hand out to touch it again. This is the first time she has touched a marine animal. In fact, it’s the first time she’s seen a living marine creature. The learners queue up for their turn to touch a sea star, chatting away with great excitement. There are so many questions. Will it bite me? Can I eat it? Is it poisonous? Where are its eyes? Have you seen a shark attack? and so the many different pre-conceptions come tumbling out. For many children, their perception of the sea and its creatures will be shaped by their first encounter. Although eThekwini has over 4 million people living a short way from the beach, for the vast majority of people, the marine environment is a completely foreign world.
In 1993 the Sea World Education Centre, part of the South African Association for Marine Biological Research (SAAMBR), embarked on an Outreach Programme. At that time, Sea World was situated at the bottom end of West Street in Durban. In order to assess what teachers knew about the marine environment, the programme started with a study of local teachers’ perceptions. This was achieved by visiting teachers at a number of schools in the eThekwini Metro area. Many teachers knew very little about the sea and consequently did not feel confident about taking their learners on outings, fearing that their lack of knowledge might be exposed. The results of the study showed that most South African children go through school, from Grade R to 12, without ever learning about the sea – despite the fact that South Africa relies on the marine environment for food, transport, climate regulation and recreation, and we have a coastline of over 3 000 km. The information generated from the investigation helped us formulate a plan of action for the Outreach Programme.
The next logical step was to initiate teachers’ workshops, both at schools and at Sea World, to give teachers the opportunity to explore marine topics at their own pace. By building their confidence when teaching about the marine environment, we were able to encourage them to use many examples from the sea to enhance their daily teaching in the classroom. Some of our teachers have been incredibly committed – many have, for many years, attended workshops at Sea World – after a full day’s teaching, and using their own time and transport. Teachers from as far afield as Port St Johns and Bergville attend our workshops – a testament to the value of the workshops and the dedication of the teachers. Since the start of the programme, over 300 workshops have been conducted and over 4 000 teachers have learnt more about how using the oceans can enhance their teaching.
As many learners cannot afford to visit uShaka Sea World in 1993 we initiated a sponsored programme for learners from impoverished communities. Since then, over 200 000 learners have had their visit to Sea World sponsored. The look of awe on these children’s faces when they see their first dolphin or shark cannot help but give one goose bumps! It is an experience that stays with them for the rest of their lives.
Many schools cannot visit uShaka Sea World – because of the distances involved and the costs. Therefore, in 1996 we started taking the sea to schools, many of which do not have electricity and most of which do not have libraries or laboratories. But many do have one amazing resource – committed, enthusiastic teachers. Regularly our dedicated educators load up their vehicle and set off into a rural area – going as far afield as Sodwana Bay and Bergville and often traversing dirt tracks to access the schools. Once they reach the school they set up their lessons – often surrounded by curious learners. The programme uses interactive lessons with presentations and games, but the highlight for the learners is to see animals of which they have only heard. Over 100 000 learners have been introduced to the oceans through this unique programme – the first of its kind in Africa.
None of this would have been possible without the support of NPC-CIMPOR, who for over nine years have supported the uShaka Sea World Education Centre and the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund.
South Africa has the third highest range of biodiversity in the world. The marine environment is highly vulnerable to the impact of coastal communities and people living in the catchment areas of rivers. Unless people are empowered to care for the environment, they will be powerless to make changes. By working with teachers and learners, SAAMBR can truly influence the capacity of communities to care for their environment. After all, how can we ever hope to encourage people to care for animals that they do not even know exist? Through the Sea World Outreach Programme, over 100 000 children and educators have a better understanding of our oceans, and of the need to care for our magnificent marine environment – an understanding which will stay with them as the future custodians of our planet.