A Planktonic Epiphany!

I was recently invited to present a workshop at the Innovations in Marine Education event at Dale Fort Field Centre in Pembrokeshire. I last visited there 20 years ago and memories were hazy but it turned out to be an inspiring weekend with a very interesting bunch of people. You can read a full review of the event at Jen Cooper’s marinemutterings blog.

Since leaving the world of field study centres and formal school teaching, I have been attempting to de-programme myself from didactic and rigid scientific enquiry modes of teaching and embracing the learner-led and experiential. At Dale Fort however, I felt the empirical pendulum swing a little the other way after an exhilarating ride into Milford Haven on the Dale Fort RIB. The ostensible purpose of this trip was to collect plankton samples, however most participants were familiar enough with marine microorganisms to not be overly concerned about this bit! Last time I had a ride on a RIB in the Bristol Channel, Severn Boy scared me half to death, so this time I held on for dear life. The boat ride was great fun but the epiphany bit happened in the lab a bit later when we got out the microscopes and saw exactly what it was that we had collected. (this photo by Christian Sardet www.planktonchronicles.org)

I’d obviously been aware of the existence of zoo and phytoplankton and the basic facts that they were the base of the marine food chain and whales can eat tons of them etc. But I had never seen them for real, up close in their amazing diversity. There is something mind-blowing about microscopy anyway but having collected these samples made it doubly exciting. We didn’t have long as it really was the end of the event but I left wondering how to find out more and integrate more seashore science into my educational work on the coast.

Mulling this over, several other things were important in switching me onto these almost invisible things with hard to say scientific names; the beautiful (if you don’t look at the oil refinery) setting of Milford Haven on a sunny morning with just enough swell to make things interesting; the joyful emotions of the ride on the RIB; the shared experience with a group of people, some of whom were extremely expert and eager to share their knowledge; the resonances of a talk the night before on marine pollution and the understanding that what we were looking at were at direct risk from ocean warming and acidification. Probably lots more factors conspired to prompt my desire to learn more but I feel the need to deconstruct the experience in order to understand it and attempt to engender some sort of interest in others, even if it is just a wow!

Where next?

Well I bought this great book by Dr. Richard Kirby, which seemed like the most accessible intro to plankton for non taxonomists like me. Then having discovered how much a plankton net cost, I decided to make one from a pair of old tights, some fencing wire, an empty hot chocolate bottle, cable tie and thread. Sadly I don’t have a boat (yet) so I tested the net from the shore in the Taw / Torridge estuary with the tide coming in.

Well we caught lots of seaweed and some 3-4mm long fish as well as some things planktonic so even though the mesh size is relatively big, I think it will make a good start. The next step is to get access to a microscope so that we can actually look at the things. I’d like to use a USB model so that we can capture some images and several children can see them on screen at a time. More research needed though before I spend big money on the wrong thing.

Not sure where this will all end up as I drift through an alien world of marine biology but I’m open to ideas and suggestions for hands on learning about very small things that live in the sea.

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