Creatures of the Deep: Training to be a Marine Mammal Surveyor

img_1904The first place I saw a seal was here, off Deal Pier. The Channel’s Grey Seals, with their proud long noses are often mistaken for swimming dogs, just ask my sea-swimming husband, who was once asked why he had left his Labrador in the water. However, this was no land mammal. No dog could swim with such confidence, no dog could dive (and dive and dive) like that. It was definitely a seal, and a grey one at that.

The Grey Seal is our most observed sea mammal at the Beach School. They often hunt on the surface, close to the shore and can be very inquisitive. At Walmer Beach one spent a good ten minutes swimming close by and watching our paddling Under 5s. But seals aren’t the only sea mammal we could see from our beaches – the English Channel is also home to many porpoises, dolphins and even the occasional humpback whale.

I adore sea mammals. For want of a better phrase, it blows my mind that so many of them are out there, in our seemingly un-exotic Channel, in the busiest shipping lane in the world. They are our mammalian cousins, birthing and milk feeding live young, yet they are so otherworldly, living their lives in an entirely different medium to us. And the fact they are out there – largely out of our sight, yet always there, enveloped in the big blue…

I needed to know more about them, I just need to see them more, to get more of a taste of their world. So last month, I undertook Marine Mammal Surveyor training with the wonderful ORCA. On the day-long course, I learnt how to spot the signs of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) and other marine mammals. But also how to record the sitings, so they can be used by ORCA to monitor marine mammal populations around Europe. ORCA’s volunteer surveyors board ferries and cruise ships leaving ports across the UK to conduct scientific surveys to record the species seen, where they are and what they are doing. So this Summer, I hope to be up on the bridge (on the bridge! Like the actual Captain!!) of our cross-channel ferries, looking for whales, dolphins and seals and recording data for this incredible and important work. I’ll update the blog when I have been on my first survey.

In the meantime, whenever I am on our shore, I shall be looking out to sea carefully. Is that object a dorsal fin of a dolphin? Was that ripple from a diving porpoise? Is that a brave dog swimming close to shore or is it actually a seal? Because these creatures of the deep are out there and they’re not as illusive as you might think.

 

If you’d like to know more about marine mammals of the English Channel – we have a free educational resource, which you can download and keep here. Happy spotting!

Mammals of the English Channel

Wonderful things to do in February

img_8761February is often thought of as a cold and dark month, but it actually marks the awakening the first signs of Spring – crocuses and snowdrops are sprouting and trees are budding. The daylight is returning too, with mornings and evenings getting gradually lighter, and by the end of the month the day will be two hours longer. And with half term approaching, here are 5 natural things to celebrate this month:

1 – Play in the snow
Here in the UK, February is the month when it is most likely to snow. When it falls, rush out to be the first one to make footprints, catch snowflakes on your tongue or build a snowman. If you wrap up warm and don your waterproofs, you can make snow angels by lying down in the snow and moving your legs up and down. Get up carefully and look at the pattern you have left behind.

2 –  Eat forced rhubarb
Slender and the brightest of pinks, this British speciality is ‘forced’ to grow in the dark sheds of Yorkshire’s mysterious sounding rhubarb triangle and it is in season now. Try it simply stewed with yoghurt or (my favourite) in a crumble. Pass me the custard.

3 – Go spring flower hunting.
Daffodils, Snowdrops and crocuses will start appearing this month – Wrap up warm and go hunting for them growing in the ground. You won’t have to go too far – roadside verges are often full of the nodding heads of daffodils. While snowdrops and crocuses can often turn up in urban nature sanctuaries, like churchyards and parks.

4 – Embrace the dark and go stargazing
The nights are shortening towards March’s Spring Equinox. Make the most of the dark by looking up to the heavens and seeing which constellations you can spot. You might also spot the International Space Station passing by…

5 – Feed the birds
The RSPB say that feeding birds during cold spells can save lives. Bird cake and food bars are very good because of their high-fat content, as are peanuts. Bird seed mixtures are also high in oils. You can also feed kitchen scraps, such as fat and suet, mild grated cheese, cooked potatoes, pastry and dried fruit. If you don’t have a garden, the birds in your local park would love some food too. Here’s a great way to make a bird feeder and recycle a plastic bottle to boot.

Plus a bonus, if you are on the coast: Go egg case hunting

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Out on the beach you might find a lot of these unusual objects washed up on the tideline this month. They’re not “brains” (as some of the beach schoolers call them) but clusters of whelk egg cases. Whelks spawn in November and December and, once the young have hatched, the egg cases wash up on our shore.

If you’d like to know more about the egg cases and learn more about our amazing sea dwellers, head to the Shark Trust and join their Great Egg Hunt.

If you try any of these ideas, please share them with us over on Facebook or Instagram and have a wonderful February!

Why the beach? The importance of the nature on your doorstep

IMG_6957Why the focus on the beach and not a woodland for your forest school? I get asked this a lot. Firstly, I must say I love the woods and I love working in them – they provide an incredible learning environment. Home to such depth and diversity – the opportunities for learning are endless. They also provide somewhere that is away from the norm, away from the traditional classroom environment. But so does the beach.

The intertidal zone is possibly the most diverse natural habitat in the world – the rockpools give us a glimpse of the marine world not normally accessible to us terrestrial mammals. The beach is also home to dynamic planetary forces playing out before your eyes, just by watching the ebb and flow of the tide. And being by the sea, in sight of the sea is simply good for you.

Here on the East Kent coast, we don’t have many trees – but we have beaches – miles and miles of them. Shingle, sand, jaw-dropping cliffs, awe-inspiring rockpools – you name it. It’s here. And I strongly (strongly!) believe that the most important job I can do as a Forest School Leader, as an educator, is to connect people with the environment that’s right on their own doorstep. Which is why I run Beach School – to bring people to the coastal environment that’s such a short distance from their homes. To build their confidence in this environment, so they can access it on their own terms. To build a positive relationship with the coast that may last a lifetime.

Which is also why Little Gulls is spreading its wings and diversifying. We don’t all live here on the coast – Beach School isn’t accessible to everyone. But just bringing nature into your everyday life can benefit both your mental and physical wellbeing and is possible in so many places, even urban ones.

Because being outside, learning outside, loving nature shouldn’t be just for those who can get to the woods, or get to the beach. There is so much right on all our doorsteps. Let’s get out there and explore it together.

Beach Schooled: I’m not the Teacher

Processed with VSCO with a6 presetWhat’s the first thing you think of when I say ‘learning’ to you? Books? Classrooms? Pupils and teachers? Probably not playing on the beach.

At Little Gulls, our approach to learning is inspired by the Forest School ethos. We’re not a traditional learning establishment, we don’t deliver education in the traditional manner. But we do provide education, we provide learning, inspiration… it just looks a little different from the norm.

The Forest School approach, that we use at Beach School is playful. Playing is learning and by providing a safe, but inspiring environment for play, we allow our Beach School participants to have the time and space to make their own choices. It also plants the seeds of creativity. So approach to learning is learner-led (or child-led). My role as the Beach School’s Forest School Leader, is not to teach – it is to facilitate learning. There are no prescriptive learning activities at Beach School – I set up activities, but these are completely open to interpretation by the participants. Our learner-centred approach means that participants may also enjoy and learn from something that isn’t on my session plan. They may (and often do) not do anything that is on the session plan at all. My job is to observe and record what they did enjoy doing and use this to inform my planning for future sessions  – so we build upon the tasks and experiences participants enjoyed – not just what was in the session plan.

It’s vitally important that we support participants by providing a safe environment. Not just through our rigorous risk assessment process, but ensuring participants feel mentally emotionally safe. We only use appropriate dialogue and non-violent communication. Everyone is treated equally and fairly, with respect and understanding, regardless of age, individual personalities, culture, interests, needs and abilities. There is no teacher/pupil dynamic to enable building an environment of trust, which allows participants to have a truly free choice. They have autonomy and they are respected.

Just because Beach School does not look like a classroom or a traditional learning environment doesn’t mean our participants are not learning. In this blog series, I hope to share with you what education is actually taking place, how our experiences are enabling crucial early development and most importantly how the Under 5s, naturally, are facilitating their own learning.

 

Plastic Free July

Back at the beginning of the month, I made a bold decision that our Beach School activities were going to go totally single-use plastic free and that anything we made would be totally biodegradable and compostable. And we did it. And I feel very proud.

Modelling environmental stewardship is possibly the greatest way to teach young people about how to care for the natural world. Tiny ones aren’t ready to hear frightening messages, but they can learn so much from just watching and doing. Such important work. However, what I have learnt this month is that going plastic-free costs more. A lot more. Buying the loose fruit and bread for snacks costs more, buying the totally biodegradable tape costs more, researching which art mediums have less impact on the paper recycling process costs more… I’ve had to get really inventive and think outside the box. At Beach School we’ve taken reusing and recycling to extremes – hello building melon skin boats. And I’ve totally had to acknowledge how privileged I am to be to be able make these choices.

Going plastic-free is just not possible for many. Increasing costs, as a small business owner is really hard. But not recognising and using the privileges we hold to improve the environment for others is, ultimately, making things even harder for someone else. So I’m carrying on on this imperfect journey – always listening, always learning – because we can’t expect our children to look after the planet, if those of us that *can* don’t try.

An interview on Frida Be Mighty

I’ve been really honoured to be interviewed by Eloise, of the wonderful parenting & education blog Frida Be Mighty about my family and the impact Forest School has had on our lives (it has been quite a lot!). The full interview is currently featured on her inspirational ‘ A Beautiful Childhood’ course – but you can read an excerpt from it on her blog here.

Thank you for having me, Eloise.