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(September 21, 2000, Gazette)

Summer science in Bonne Bay

By Kelley Power
Sitting on the coast of Bonne Bay, with such landmarks as Gros Morne Mountain and the Tablelands visible in the distance, Norris Point seems to await the pleasure of passing sightseers. Yet, this scenic town is also home to an intensive program of summer study offered through Memorial’s Biology department.

It is here that the university’s Bonne Bay Field Station is located, a facility that every summer sees the arrival of up to 20 students who have signed on to find out what science beyond the classroom is all about.

From May to August, the Biology Department offers several courses at the field station which are open to students with at least a second year university background in biology or environmental science.

At present, the station consists of three buildings. Two former residential homes have been converted into teaching and living facilities and a former merchant store is home to the station’s aquarium systems. Not all of the students can board at the station; some stay at bed and breakfasts or with local families in Norris Point.

Dr. Bob Hooper, who is responsible for organizing the summer activities at Bonne Bay, said that since the program was begun in 1979, the demand for courses has been high. In fact, several students have to be turned away every year because the high level of interest exceeds the available space.

While some of the courses involve a mixture of class work and field trips, two separate two-week field schools are also offered. Dr. Hooper explained that the first of these schools is designed to be introductory, discussing principal marine environments, organisms and techniques.

The more advanced school requires students to complete an experimental project under Dr. Hooper’s supervision, which they research and design prior to leaving for Bonne Bay in May. Students with proper certification can even incorporate scuba diving into their projects. This course targets, but is not restricted to, honours students.

According to Dr. Hooper, the purpose of holding courses at the field station is to give students an intimate understanding of Newfoundland’s ocean.

“We’re trying to get our students out of the classroom and into the sea,” he said.

It is this hands-on approach to learning that seems to attract people to the program. The opportunity to study marine species in their natural habitat was frequently mentioned by students as a highlight of their time in Bonne Bay.

Mike Kelly, a fifth-year biology student, said that the biology courses offered on the West Coast were the best he had ever taken and, in fact, had an effect on his direction of study.

“The courses in Bonne Bay put a whole new perspective on things for me,” said Mr. Kelly. “I would have never considered doing an honours project if I hadn’t done the field courses in Bonne Bay.”

Fourth-year student Susan Hynes was similarly impressed.

“If I had to address new university biology students, my advice to them would be, do the courses as soon as possible; they remind you of why you are studying biology in the first place.”

The Bonne Bay Field Station owes its existence in part to good fortune. According to Dr. Hooper, Memorial came to own the property by inheritance after it had been used for a research project. While this acquisition in was itself a stoke of luck, the real benefit came from of the property’s location.

As it turns out, there is an incredible diversity of aquatic species in that part of Newfoundland, due mostly to the great variability of geology, landscape and habitat types throughout the area. In addition, Bonne Bay is sheltered and thus offers safe boating conditions.

Dr. Hooper said, “I’ve spent 30 years now, all around the coast of Newfoundland and if I were to, without bias, choose a place to put (the field station) anywhere in the whole province, that’s where I’d put it.”

Of course, being on the doorstep of Gros Morne National Park is itself an advantage of the station’s location. The natural beauty of the area is another drawcard for students considering the Bonne Bay field courses.

Fourth-year student Juliana Barry came from Nova Scotia to study biology at Memorial.

“At first I had planned to register for courses at the main campus over the summer, but ... there were no courses offered for biology students,” she said. “However, a friend told me about the courses in Norris Point and really encouraged me to go. So I had thought about it and decided to go since I had never been to Gros Morne National Park.”

While the program, as it exists now, obviously appeals to students, there is always room for change and the coordinators of the Bonne Bay school actively seek student feedback. Suggestions they’ve received include the integration of more courses dealing with marine environmental science, sea-birds and marine mammals, as well as the introduction of non-marine biology courses.

Though the program may undergo some changes in the future, one thing will certainly remain the same: the incomparability of the Bonne Bay experience, said Dr. Hooper.