Written by Paul Millar
Marine education can mean different things to different people, particularly when they are working in very different parts of the world to each other. Unlike school teaching where a teacher works daily with the same groups of children, the marine educator tends to have far shorter interactions. Like a supply or relief teacher, the marine educator often has just one chance to get it right with a group. Trying out new activities always comes with a risk, so any opportunity to see other marine educators at work and pick up a few ideas is always welcome. So when given the opportunity to visit the Seychelles and see the local marine education programme in action, how could I refuse? Particularly as Cape Town is in the throes of what must be one of the coldest, wettest winters on record!
After a lengthy journey, it was great to be met by Abbie Hine, the local Save Our Seas marine educator. As a first time visitor to the Seychelles I was immediately impressed by the massive hunks of granite, turquoise water and lushness of the main island, Mahé. I was equally impressed by the skill of the drivers who somehow negotiate extremely narrow, winding and busy roads with a calmness that at first felt a little out of place!
One of the main reasons for my visit was to attend a ceremony for the awarding of bursaries to local secondary school children. The bursaries cover the cost of a two week intensive marine education programme funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation. This is a new partnership between the Foundation and the Marine Conservation Society of Seychelles, known as the Academy by the Sea. Applicants had to submit either a marine-themed work of art or an essay, and judging by the exceptionally high standard of entries received, the local youngsters were serious about attending the Academy. Children, parents, siblings, local media and members of the organisations involved were all in attendance, and there was a strong sense of pride amongst all present. In all twenty-four boys and girls received the bursary, and while the runners up were understandably disappointed, they were clearly happy to receive some great prizes provided by the Save Our Seas Foundation.
I was fortunate enough to accompany Abbie on some of her school visits and see how things are done in the Seychelles. As a marine educator, I was naturally interested in what she does and how the children respond. I was also interested in how the local state school context compares to things here in South Africa. Both through discussion and seeing Abbie at work, it quickly became apparent that we share the belief that marine education should instil a sense of wonder and be presented with passion, yet simultaneously acknowledge the plight of the oceans and challenges ahead. And if we all have fun while we learn, so much the better! Each session with the kids ended with Abbie leading them in lively songs that really worked well at entrenching the messages conveyed through her talks. I mouthed along with the words, but thought it best to spare everybody the torture of my untrained voice!
One afternoon per week, the Seychelles Ministry of Education expects its teachers to participate in a professional growth activity. Abbie has worked hard to have earned the respect of the education authorities and now runs teacher development sessions in schools regularly. By building local teacher’s knowledge and sensitising them to marine conservation issues, hopefully some of this will be imparted to the children. During the session I was particularly struck by two observations: Firstly, most of the teachers appeared to have enormous pride in their island nation and its marine heritage. Secondly, most of them seemed to have relatively little accurate knowledge about their local marine life. Considering that 99,9 percent of the Seychelles is ocean, I was surprised to hear that out of the staff of thirty-five teachers, only four could swim! Of course one can’t make generalisations from visiting just one school, but at a glance, Abbie is fulfilling an extremely important role in working with these teachers.
In many respects the Seychelles appears to be an ideal place for marine education, and I’m not just thinking about the fact that it’s a tropical paradise (it really, really is!). There appears to be a need for marine awareness and with the majority of the population living within walking distance of a relatively pristine ocean, there can be little doubt as to the relevance of a marine education programme. The fact that the Seychelles Ministry of Education appears to have embraced the work of Abbie Hine and the Save Our Seas Foundation is particularly encouraging. Visiting the Seychelles and having a chance to learn about marine education there was a fantastic experience. It is reassuring to know that there are other folk out there with similar beliefs doing similar stuff and often facing similar challenges. When we step back from our own working context and get a chance to reflect, we inevitably develop new ideas and a fresh dose of commitment. Hopefully we’ll have the opportunity to host Abbie at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre here in Cape Town soon. In the meantime I’d better get some voice training, because singing songs with kids seems to work!