Updated: Nov 8, 2022
In the final year of my Marine Biology undergraduate degree at McGill university in Montreal, I signed up for a 6 week summer field course at Bamfield Marine Station. Behavioural Ecology was taught by Dr. Ron Ydenberg and it was one of the most impactful summers of my life. We spend days lying in the sun on small islands off the coast of Bamfield in the Pacific Ocean. There is nothing between these islands and Japan. We lie on our backs on the beach and are asked to watch the interactions unfold. Watch the crows dropping the mussels on the rocks. How high did they need to fly to make it break? What questions come to mind when you watch the barnacles feeding? What are you curious about?
We were not expected to memorize facts. We were asked to simply think up questions. Write them in your journal and keep going. Don’t stop thinking about questions. And six weeks later the questions are deeper, richer and more articulate than any of us could have imagined. No exam. No pressure. I remember more about this course than any course in my university career. We were with an amazing group of people and we spent time getting to know each other. We were outside the classroom.
I learned that the courses that mattered most to me were the ones when we were outside and engaged in the ecosystems that I wanted to support. A tropical ecology course in Barbados, a marine mammal course in Nova Scotia and this incredible 6 week course on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
For one of the assignments, we were asked to complete a 24 hour plankton tow and to create a plan for how we would share the work with the 24 other students. Plankton is a word derived the greek "drifting" and includes both phytoplankton (plant) & zooplankton (animal). We split into groups of four and chose a daytime and a nighttime slot to gather the samples we needed. The teaching assistants drove the boats and we collected plankton with a fine net at the surface of the water as well as a depth of 20 m. We had ropes attached to plankton nets and large white buckets to bring our samples back to the lab to view under microscopes. It went something like this.
It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and we crawl out of our sleeping bags. The tide is coming in and a half moon is all the light we need to see the path through the woods. We load the boat and put on our life jackets. We grumble about this late night assignment. How is a 3 am tow going to be any different than the 4am tow? Why are they taking our precious sleep away from us?
We head out in the boat through the calm inlet towards the open ocean. The drone of the motor makes us all want to go back to bed. We stare up at the stars in the dark night sky and notice how the lack of light pollution is remarkably different from the sky in the city. We stare down at the black ocean water beneath us, when suddenly the ocean starts to glow. The wake of the boat lights up with fluorescent white light and below us we see fish streaking through the glowing phosphorescent dinoflagellates. It is the most beautiful, exhilarating and incredible sight I’ve ever seen.
We squeal with delight as we watch the larger fish hunting smaller fish - we see giant streaks under the water like a natural fireworks display. We drive slower to observe this natural phenomena and the quiet night sky is filled with laughter, awe and pure delight.
We return to the dock and bring our buckets to the lab. We spend the next few hours identifying hundreds of species of phytoplankton and zooplankton. Looking under the microscope at what actually lives in the ocean water is like looking into a world beyond words. We find planktonic forms of the sea star, sea urchin, shrimp, squid, crab, anemone, barnacle and a huge range of organisms. Most of the animals we have been studying on the rocky shores have a form that is planktonic - the baby crabs, the baby anemones and urchins - of course I understand this but now I am discovering it for myself. It’s all fitting together.
The bioluminescence that night was mind boggling. It was a moment that transformed my understanding of the world and it happened in a ‘classroom’. Not many people get the opportunity to see or think about what lives in ocean water. Most of us don’t think about ocean water very often or even why it matters. I eventually left marine biology to work in cities and to help understand how our behaviour in cities matters to the whales.
So what did I learn in that 6 weeks at Bamfield as I reflect back to those days? That the same lesson just keeps coming up -how everything is interconnected and yet we continue to live in a world of separation.
Why do we keep organizing school, university & classes as if things are separate - biology, politics, women's studies, engineering.
Integration is the deep work that the worlds needs. We need to think about what we teach, what we don’t teach and how we teach, what we think about, how we design our sidewalks and cities, what we put down the drain and what we focus on. We need to design learning around questions and experiences.
Learn more about plankton here: