Ecotourism operator, schools join forces to teach children about the Salish Sea

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Eagle Wing’s Exploring the Salish Sea floating classroom program combines school curriculum, water research, beach excursions and experiential learning to ignite children’s passion for the ocean and its ecosystems

It’s early morning at Fisherman’s Wharf and 45 students from Cedar Hill Middle School eagerly board a 60-foot whale-watching vessel.

There is a palpable sense of excitement as they await the adventure ahead – a two-hour journey into the Salish Sea, where they will see humpback and orca whales, flocks of seabirds and colonies of sea lions.

They’ll pass Race Rocks, rich in marine life, and head to Whirl Bay off Metchosin, where they’ll visit kelp beds and maybe spot sea otters and bald eagles – even a black bear that is known to take ocean dives there.

It’s not your parents’ class. This is interactive learning at its best.

And it’s been going on for four years as part of a partnership between Victoria-based ecotourism company Eagle Wing Tours and dozens of schools and four area school districts.

“It’s a chance for kids to essentially see the ocean world and possibly work to save that world…in their own backyard,” said Eagle Wing co-owner Brett Soberg.

Soberg said most of the kids taking part have never seen a whale before, and some have never been on a boat or even on a beach. “So it gets them out there and lets them know what a sea lion looks like or what kelp looks like,” he said.

“It generates a real interest in what they learn. They learn to understand the Salish Sea, learn to love it, and eventually they will be the ones working to preserve it.

Eagle Wing’s Exploring the Salish Sea floating classroom program was launched in 2018 in partnership with marine schools and educators. This is a four-part program that runs from September to March and combines a school curriculum with water research and beach excursions.

Each class chooses an ocean project and, at the end of the year, exhibits a model and their research at the Royal BC Museum, touring the museum’s extensive Salish Sea collections.

To date, just over 4,000 students have participated in the program. The goal for 2022-2023 is another 4,000, and the long-term goal is 10,000 students per year by 2030.

“It’s a fantastic program and quite an adventure,” said Amy Collins, a Grade 6 teacher at Cedar Hill Middle School.

She said classroom lessons are supplemented by Eagle Wing naturalists and biologists who visit the school to talk about their findings. This term, students focus on how businesses and others that operate on the Salish Sea can be sustainable and work with nature.

Kathleen Meiklejohn, Grade 6 teacher at Center Mountain Lellum Middle School in Langford, said: “Connecting to all the sights, sounds and smells of the Salish Sea will create lasting memories for my students and help foster a feeling stewardship for this land that we’re all guests,” Meiklejohn said.

Eagle Wing said it suffers a financial loss in defraying many of the costs associated with the program. Schools pay approximately $35 per student for the program, which includes the visit and staff time for on-water, beach and classroom sessions.

Individual schools pay tuition through Parent Advisory Council fundraisers, and districts also pay for some costs.

Sponsorships from the Royal BC Museum, UVic’s Ocean Networks Canada and Pacific Northwest Transportation Services help with program logistics, and Soberg hopes other like-minded institutions and businesses can contribute as the program’s popularity grows. .

Eagle Wings ends up absorbing about 40% of overall expenses to run the program, but Soberg said there are huge benefits, including the ability to retain staff during the offseason.

Normally, tourism businesses lay off much of their workforce as tourism dwindles in the fall, but Eagle Wing general manager Nathan Bird said the classroom program allows the company to create nine full-time positions over the fall and winter seasons.

Soberg, who grew up in Victoria, said his father was an educator and he was brought up in a learning environment.

Pulling his cell phone out of his pocket, Soberg said education “isn’t that.”

“Education is going out to smell a sea lion, watch it, see the birds fly. See how the kelp works. You learn to protect what you can experience and understand.

Eagle Wing won an international award for the program this summer from the National Marine Educators Association, representing teachers, educators, college professors and scientists from around the world.

Earlier this year, the program also won a BC Principals and Vice-Principals Association Partnership Award, which recognizes groups that “have made a substantial difference in the lives of public school students.”

The program is so popular with teachers and students that there is a long waiting list and school districts must use a lottery system to determine which classes will participate.

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