John Hepburn manages The Island Trust’s Ocean Discoverability Project and sails on day trips as the On-Board Ocean Educator. At the end of 2019, he ran a two-day course in Plymouth for Sail Trainers interested in helping their young people become more Ocean Literate.
According to the Ocean Conservation Trust, the widely used definition of Ocean Literacy is:
“The understanding of our individual and collective impact on the Ocean and its impact on our lives and wellbeing.”
Hepburn continues to develop a series of professional development resources for Sail Trainers to use online, and he believes that Ocean Literacy also has a part to play in the Five Steps to Wellbeing.
Encounters with spectacular marine life are experiences that can form lasting bonds between people. Although it isn’t always within our ability to make them happen, we can create opportunities for young people to witness all sorts of interesting marine species. Looking for wildlife can also improve look-out effectiveness.
Even the less spectacular wildlife encounters work. The school that found a small flatfish in a plankton sample in 2012 (yes, that is what it was!) still talks about it today.
There is more to becoming Ocean Literate than simply reading textbooks or going to lectures. Why not go for a rockpool ramble next time you are at a suitable beach and the tide is right? Even less-than-promising foreshores might have harbour walls or other structures that uncover at low tide, allowing you to discover what lives on them.
Plankton is at the base of the marine food web, and studying it can require coordination, teamwork, communication, and action to get it from the sea as this team from Eggbuckland Community College found when sailing on an Ocean Discoverability day trip with The Island Trust.
International law requires mariners to keep a good lookout at sea for their own safety, as well as that of other seafarers, and to prevent damage to the environment. You need to spot pot markers which are often small and badly marked and may have stray lines that can catch your prop, or even be joined together which can stop the ship entirely!
There is also amazing wildlife out there. Higher numbers of whales and fish are being recorded each year in British waters, and even out of sight of land there will be seabirds.
Sadly, it’s also likely that you’ll spot some plastic waste floating around too.
Some of what you can see whilst out at sea is obvious, but there will always be opportunities to find out and learn new things. Your sea staff may be able to tell you what sort of ship you are looking at, what its nationality is, or they may even teach you the difference between a cormorant and a shag (both are very similar seabirds!). If you take pictures and keep notes for your records, you will be able to learn much more about them after you return from your voyage.
Where was that ship coming from? Where was it going? What was it likely to be carrying? How old is it? Who owns it? These questions are fairly easy to answer once you’re reconnected to the internet. You could keep a log and have a competition to see which watch spots the most vessels or wildlife.
Your wildlife sightings may be valuable information to those concerned with their conservation, so sharing your records is a really useful thing to do! One of the easiest ways of doing that, if you have photographs, is to record your observations on iNaturalist.
If you are not sure what you have seen, iNaturalist will suggest an identification and there is a community of experts happy to help. You can even set up a collection project so everyone can see what those on board your vessel have seen over the whole season or just one voyage.