Marine teens

Once a year, a group of Australian secondary students packs sleeping bags and snorkels and heads to Tasmania to become marine biologists for five days. In the waters around Maria Island, they study and help add to the body of knowledge about our marine environments. For some of these teenagers, the experience is what makes them decide to enrol in university; for others it is the awakening of a life-long passion. 

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In 2012, after the formation of the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS), a research and teaching institute at the University of Tasmania, discussions began with conservation organisation Wild Mob about the creation of a joint marine biology experience aimed at college students. Drs Mary-Anne Lea and Scott Ling (IMAS) worked with Wild Mob for months to develop the course. According to Ling, it was designed to give college students a chance to dive into marine biology in the unique Tasmanian environment within a program that would complement Wild Mob’s conservation projects and create a pathway for school students interested in a career in marine biology.

The logical fit for this new initiative, says Ling, was within the university’s college program, which enables talented college students to undertake university level units of study. The course they created is called A Practical Introduction to Marine Biology, and it became the first science offering within the UTAS College Program.

Students prepare for the five-day field trip to Maria Island by learning facts and features of the key marine species, making the field trip doubly rewarding as students discover the real-life habits of species they have learnt about in books and online. The course is designed to be experiential, giving the students a taste of genuine marine research. UTAS pitches the field-based course as designed to “engage, challenge, excite and inspire” students, and from what I saw, it achieved all four in 2016. 

On a practical level, the course enables participants to apply marine biology theory, techniques and sampling methodology. Students gain the ability to design, collect and interpret biological data and through these practical skills the broader themes of marine biology are revealed.

Scott Ling said students observe the marine ecosystem closely, and are then guided to hypothesise why and how the ecosystem works, “From understanding food webs and the role of humans as an apex predator, to the role of weather in defining where and when certain marine creatures can survive.”

Through the data collected and analysed, the productivity of the marine system and issues threatening biodiversity are better understood. The research reveals information that contributes to a better understanding about climate change, invasive species, pollution, debris and associated social and economic impacts.

The teaching team comprises researchers with extensive knowledge and experience, and representatives of Wild Mob, which is Australia’s only conservation organisation specialising in islands. The course was offered to students from 18 schools spanning four states (Tasmania, South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland). During the 2016 Easter school holidays a full quota of 24 students (18 from Tasmania and six from interstate) experienced a week in the life of a marine biologist; studying the sea life of a remote, temperate island and marine reserve. 

Wild Mob has extensive experience running conservation field courses for college students across Australia. For Dr Ling and his colleagues at IMAS, utilising the skills and experience of Wild Mob has been critical in providing the logistical support to underpin the delivery of a high intensity teaching programme on a remote island. “The students are fully catered for, enabling them to do nothing but eat, sleep and do marine biology day and night.”

The course counts towards students TE or ATAR scores – prerequisites for gaining entry in to university studies. Even more attractive to budding university students, the course is a full unit offering within the University College Program, meaning students who complete the course can gain 12.5 credit points in a Bachelor of Marine and Antarctic Studies/ Bachelor of General Studies, meaning 25 per cent of their first semester at university would be complete before they start. 

I spoke with three of the students during a break from presenting their research findings at IMAS on the final day of the course. Ellen and Emma were local students and Toby was from New South Wales. They were buzzing. The passion and knowledge with which they spoke about the marine environment, their experience and learnings was inspiring. 

They explained survey techniques and the importance of the two study locations, one within the marine reserve and one outside of it. Ellen explained how they measured species abundance and species variety using 50-metre transect lines, one person swimming on each side of the line to record the species present. There were six transect lines in each of the two environments.
All three students were clearly proud of their ability to identify the various species. But they were even more proud of the fact that the data they collected is meaningful and is contributing to scientific understanding. “We weren’t just studying, we were doing something useful.”

Islands have immense intrinsic value. They contain 40 per cent of the Australian coastline and thus a huge part of its iconic coastal landscapes and habitats.

About 35 per cent of all threatened species in Australia are islanders, despite the fact that islands contain only 0.004 per cent of the Australian land mass. 

This means a very high return on investment in conservation and securing threatened species can be achieved on islands, a key reason Wild Mob has focussed its work on and around islands, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Norfolk Island. “Islands and their surrounds have the potential to act as arks for biodiversity,” says Dr Derek Ball, CEO of Wild Mob.

According to Dr Ling, Maria Island provides an exceptional location to study marine biology. “It offers a diverse range of marine habitats, from the exposed and largely inhospitable eastern coastline to the sheltered western shore. However, the key feature and excellent learning opportunity is provided by the Maria Island Marine Reserve, which spans seven kilometres of coastline along the north western shore of the island. Closed to fishing since 1992, this marine protected area provides a haven for marine life and includes spectacular and diverse underwater seascapes easily explored by snorkelling.”

Following the cessation of fishing, large predatory fish that live on rocky reefs have shown a steady recovery back to natural levels, which in turn has a large positive benefit for the overall health and resilience of reef ecosystem within the reserve. Large rock lobsters are capable of eating sea urchins that can become pests by overgrazing kelp beds. Inside the marine reserve, large numbers of big lobsters now roam the reef and keep urchin numbers in check, whereas outside the reserve urchins are rife in many places where they maintain urchin barren grounds where productive kelp bed habitat has been grazed away.”

Maria Island is ideal for the course – it essentially provides a natural laboratory, easily accessible to students. By learning to undertake structured data collection and analysis students contribute directly to the ongoing monitoring of changes within and adjacent to the Maria Island Marine Reserve.

The high school course, known as XAS101, helps to build upon a huge body of marine data thanks to long term monitoring in the area by the CSIRO under the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). We know that the waters surrounding Maria Island have warmed at a particularly rapid rate over the past 70 years. According to Dr Ling, this warming has been chiefly driven by an increasing strength in the East Australian Current (made famous by the Disney movie Finding Nemo), which brings warm but nutrient-poor water from the equator down the entire eastern seaboard of Australia. “This warming, which effectively represents a 350km southward shift in the environment, has seen the establishment of many new marine species off the east coast of Tasmania, including at Maria Island. Upward of 70 such ‘range-extending’ species, typically with origins in New South Wales, are now observable in eastern Tasmania.”  

Ellen explained that this year’s course was the first time a student group had recorded greater species diversity within the reserve than adjacent to it. They also recorded the highest count yet of “range-extending species”, at which I must have looked confused, because Emma instantly launched into a confident and concise definition.

During their five days on Maria Island, students learn the identity of these range-extending species, and native Tasmanian species, and assess changes in their abundance on rocky reefs above and below the waves, in the plankton and those living in soft sediments. The long-spined sea urchin (Centrostephanus rodgersii) is an example of a range-extending species of particular interest due to its ability to transform the rocky reefscapes from productive kelp beds to unproductive urchin barrens.

The course benefits the local area by bringing regular business to the Triabunna region, ferry service and National Parks, a good fit with the four Cs guiding philosophy of Wild Mob: conservation, community, culture and commerce. 

I asked Toby if he would recommend the course. “Oh yeah! Wow, I could go on about it for a long time!”

Toby also said that a great unexpected bonus of the course was spending a week with like-minded people who shared his interest and passion for the marine world. “There were no awkward silences, everyone made friends straight away.”

Ellen, Emma and Toby all agreed the experience had influenced their thoughts about whether or not to enrol in university and, if so, what to study. Ellen said she would enrol at the first chance in marine biology. Emma said she had been going to have a gap year but was now reconsidering, and Toby, who had done volunteer work at an aquarium, had now realised this kind of work was more his style and was keen to pursue it at university.

I thanked Emma, Ellen and Toby and wandered out of the IMAS building, inspired, and wishing the world was run by college students.

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For more information about the IMAS-Wild Mob marine biology course, see Experience a week as a marine biologist.

A publisher once told James that when he is asked for his bio, he should say: “James writes subversive essays about important things.” James felt a bit awkward about saying this publically, but secretly he liked it. He has written for many publications. His books are Essays from Near and Far, Walleah Press, 2014 and The Balfour Correspondent, Bob Brown Foundation, 2017.

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