Ocean Ambassadors

Ocean Ambassadors: MUN Grad Students Greet Thousands at the Ocean Sciences Centre

(Written By:Jamie Fitzpatrick)

Photo: Dave Howells

The Ocean Sciences Centre teems with life on a misty summer morning. Tourists take in the view of Logy Bay. A family climbs the steps leading to the tanks that house three harp seals. Kids crowd around the saltwater touch tanks located outside the OSC’s main building, peer through the glass to see the flounder hiding in the mud, and reach in to stroke a starfish or hermit crab.

“What’s that stuff?” asks a boy as he leans over the aquarium, his nose hovering inches above the water.

“It’s two kinds of seaweed,” replies Sarah Walsh. “Just feel how different they are.” She dips her fingers in, and the boy does the same.

Another boy points to the blue lobster in an adjoining tank. “Can I take that lobster home and eat it?”

“No, you can’t,” says Sarah with a smile.

As an interpreter with the Marine Public Education Program, Sarah Walsh has to be ready for any and all questions. The OSC’s touch tanks and harp seal facility attract over 18,000 visitors every summer. Thousands more get a glimpse of the underwater world via the travelling touch tank, which visits groups around the city and communities outside St. John’s.

Although most of the visitors come from Newfoundland and Labrador, many are unfamiliar with the spectacular variety of the North Atlantic ecosystem.

“I love teaching people about the ocean, especially the ocean around them,” says Sarah. “Most of them know about creatures like sea stars and sea urchins. But they might be surprised by the sea cucumber or sea peach. It really opens their eyes.”

As a girl, Sarah spent every summer boating with her family, always eager to discover more about the sea. Today she sees that same spark of curiosity when a child lingers at the touch tanks, wide-eyed and full of questions.

“Most of them just want the cool facts, or they go straight to the seals,” she says. “But then you get kids who really want to learn. They want to stay all day long, to get their hands in and touch things and pick up things.”

Some of those curious kids might find themselves back at the OSC by participating in the Oceans Learning Partnership, an educational initiative that gives elementary and high school students a hands-on introduction to marine science and technology. OLP programs are designed and delivered by a network of scientists and educators from Memorial University, the Marine Institute, and Parks Canada, with support from participating schools and funding by the Hebron Project. The Ocean Sciences Centre is a key location in that program, with laboratory space currently being renovated to accommodate OLP students.

“I wish we had something like that when I was in high school,” says Sarah. “But there wasn’t much about the ocean in my school. I didn’t know you could make something of yourself in marine science.” When she began studying at Memorial, she switched programs twice before she realized that the right career was the one she had been preparing for since childhood, when she spent every summer on her father’s boat. “It was obvious once I found it. I always used to tell my friends I wanted to be a marine biologist. All my life I wanted to work on the ocean.”

Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science from Memorial and is working towards a joint Diploma/Bachelor of Technology in Ocean Mapping at the Marine Institute. She looks forward to a career that will draw on her fascination with the wide-ranging marine environment.

“I don’t want to focus on one issue or one species. The ocean mapping program gives me the ability to specialize while allowing me to work with different people on different issues.”

In the meantime, she enjoys spending the summer at the Ocean Sciences Centre, where her passion for the sea has found a thriving hub of education and research.

Meet more ocean ambassadors and learn more about the OSC’s public engagement programs at http://olp.oceansnl.net

Sep 24th, 2014

Ocean Ambassadors: Tyler Engert

(Written by: Jamie Fitzpatrick)

Ocean sciences might seem an unusual career choice for a man who grew up thousands of miles from salt water.

Tyler Engert is from Cornwall, in Eastern Ontario. There are no seafaring stories in his family. No sailors, fishers, or marine researchers.

Photo: Dave Howells

But as an undergraduate student at Memorial, it’s the ocean that has captured his imagination.

“I was considering different fields in biology, and marine biology was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “When I was a boy we went to both coasts on family vacations. It made me curious about the ocean.”

That curiosity opened a career path when he came to MUN in September of 2013.

A few days after arriving on campus, Tyler attended “Everything Science,” the annual Faculty of Science orientation event for first-year students. He was drawn to the ocean sciences display, with its marine touch tank.

“I didn’t touch any of the animals,” he says with a laugh. “When I was younger I had issues with touching creatures. I knew I had to get through that if I wanted to do biology. But I did ask a lot of questions, and that really got the ball rolling, got me thinking about marine biology and all the possibilities.”

Touching and handling undersea creatures is no longer an issue for Tyler. In fact, he already has a favourite. It’s the sea slug.

“It’s really interesting how they’ve adapted to their environment. Some sea slugs defend themselves by hiding. Others secrete an acid to drive predators away. Some of them will actually eat the stinger cells from a jellyfish and adapt those cells for their own body. So if you touch it, it’s the same as touching a jellyfish.”

“With invertebrates, there’s so much variety and diversity. Each animal is so different. Some of them can live in a hydrothermal vent where the pressure and temperature are incredible. It’s amazing.”

Last summer, Tyler put his newfound knowledge and enthusiasm to work at the Ocean Science Centre. He was an interpreter with the OSC’s Public Education Program, greeting thousands of visitors and introducing them to the North Atlantic ecosystem.

“We showed them the touch tanks and the harp seals, and talked about the ocean off Newfoundland. Sometimes people had really good questions, and if I didn’t know the answer I’d go and ask (on-site researchers). I learned so much there, and it’s been a huge help with my classes.”

Tyler plans to major in marine biology, with a minor in ocean sciences. He’s already thinking about a possible second degree in ocean technology, at the Marine Institute.

“I enjoy dissecting and examining specimens, the hands-on, tactile research. But I want to do the fieldwork too. I want to man the ROV out on the ocean and explore.”

Moving to St. John’s from Cornwall hasn’t always been easy. “I didn’t know there could be so much wind anywhere,” he says, recalling his first Newfoundland winter. But adjusting to a new environment has been part of his student adventure.

“I wanted something different, something I hadn’t seen before. The ecosystem here is very different. That’s part of what drew me here, the ocean ecosystem, the different sea currents and all the life down there. It’s amazing to think about it and study it.”

Oct 1st, 2014


Ocean Ambassadors: David Belanger

(Written by: Jamie Fitzpatrick)

David Belanger has seen the wonder and amazement on people’s faces when they get their first up-close look at the North Atlantic marine environment.

Photo: Dave Howells

“You see them hold something like a sea star, which is a very common organism. They say, ‘Wow! We have these here?’ Then they’re full of questions. In fifteen minutes you can change their entire perspective on the ocean.”

He understands the astonishment. Growing up in Sherbrooke, Quebec, David was fascinated by the sea.

“Always watching Cousteau episodes,” he says with a grin. “Always interested in marine life.”

Today David is a doctoral candidate in marine biology at Memorial, studying rhodolith beds off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.

When he’s not diving for rhodolith samples or immersed in lab work at the Ocean Sciences Centre, he’s busy introducing the public to the beauty and diversity of the undersea world. The summer of 2014 was especially hectic.

On World Oceans Day he was at Middle Cove Beach, diving for fish and other sea creatures to show visitors. A few weeks later he volunteered at the Whale Festival at Cape Spear and Petty Harbour. He greeted tourists and locals at the OSC’s marine touch tanks and harp seal facility. He also made trips with the travelling touch tank, calling at locations across St. John’s and beyond.

“The most interesting thing is to see how many people are not very aware of what’s in the ocean,” he says. “I spend half of my time underwater, so for me it’s obvious. But it’s hard to see what’s going on underwater if you don’t have access to it. That’s where we help.”

David is also a teaching assistant with the Oceans Learning Partnership, which introduces high school students to ocean science and technology. The OLP brings together scientists and researchers from Memorial University, the Marine Institute, and Parks Canada, with funding by the Hebron Project.  

“We get the students doing real science,” says David. “We have them identify different species. We do a fish dissection with them, and show them all the parts and the function of the organs. They leave with a real idea of how the work is done.”

“One day we had primary school kids, five and six years old. We played games with them, like counting sea stars. But we were still using real scientific techniques adapted for the games.”

The OLP program has expanded for the 2014-15 school year. High school students are working on real-world research projects, both in the field and at the OSC laboratory, with mentoring by scientists and graduate students.

“We’re getting more interactive with them, and more technical,” says David, who helped design the expanded program. “We have them working with GoPros and using Smart Boards. It’s hands-on activity, and it’s all based on studying the ecosystem here.”

David expects to complete his doctorate in two years. Wherever his career leads, he says, nurturing and inspiring the next generation of ocean professionals will be a part of it.

“You can tell that some of them have a passion for the ocean,” he says of the students he meets. “It’s exciting to show them what marine biology is all about. It gets them excited too, and it helps them make better choices about what they want to do.”


Ocean Ambassadors: Daryl Jones (Witten by Jamie Fitzpatrick)

Tyler is stalling. His training session is over, but he’s hanging on. His shiny, mottled head pokes above water, and his dark eyes size up the teaching assistant who has been trying to lure him from the tank. Then he turns and dives, curling away with a flick of his tail.


As a harp seal who has lived at the Ocean Sciences Centre since he was a white coat, Tyler knows that every training exercise includes tasty morsels of herring.

“If he thinks there’s a chance that the training will continue, and a chance for more fish, he won’t leave the tank,” explains Daryl Jones, the OSC’s aquarist and supervisor of the seal facility.

But Tyler has to make way for Deane, the youngest of the OSC’s three harp seals. Watching him twist and turn through the water, Daryl tells the two teaching assistants to pack up the training gear—including the herring bucket—and store it in the shed.

“We have to walk away, let him know it’s over for today,” says Daryl. “That’s how he knows we’re serious.”

He and the teaching assistants leave Tyler alone. They close the gate and descend the stairs that connect the seal tanks to the main OSC building in Logy Bay.

Haggling with clever, obstinate animals is all in a day’s work for the man who oversees the world’s only harp seal research station.

“Harp seals are different from other seals and sea lions,” says Daryl. “Very independent, very difficult to motivate. They’re like cats: give me my food and get out of my way. So it’s difficult to train them. They don’t like to be tricked.”

A self-described “Saskatchewan farm boy,” Daryl Jones grew up exploring the lakes and rivers around his home, and spent summers on the Pacific shore near his grandparents’ home on Vancouver Island. He earned his Bachelor of Science in fish biology and animal behaviour from the University of Saskatchewan, and worked at the Bamfield Marine Station in B.C. before coming to Memorial in 1989 to pursue his Master’s degree. He has been the aquarist and seal supervisor since 1998.

Two of the seals have seniority on him. Babette came to the OSC in 1989, when she was captured as an adult off the Magdalen Islands. Tyler arrived from the Magdalen Islands the following year. Deane is their daughter, born at the OSC in 2002.

They are local celebrities, the main attraction of a Public Education Program that draws over 18,000 visitors every summer. Daryl knows that his unofficial job title is caretaker to the stars. “I don’t ever hear, Daryl, how are you?” he says with a grin. “It’s always, Daryl, how are the seals?”

In fact, the seals are only part of the aquarist’s job. The Ocean Sciences Centre is a “wet building.” Water from Logy Bay is piped throughout the facility, topping up tanks that house fish, invertebrates, and plant life. The population is constantly in flux, with divers delivering fresh samples from the North Atlantic for research and lab teaching, or to fill the Public Education Program’s touch tanks every spring. From a two hundred kilogram harp seal to a periwinkle the size of a thumbnail, they are all Daryl’s animals.

“Animal health and husbandry is the main job,” he says. “Teaching students how to look after them, and how to achieve the right conditions for good research.”

Twenty minutes alone has convinced Tyler to leave the training tank. Deane moves in and begins an exercise that asks her to identify and match coloured balls, with a bite of herring as a reward every time she gets it right. It’s a game that can reveal much about the vision, memory, and learning ability of the harp seal.

“Deane’s a little more eager to please, compared to Tyler,” says Daryl.

Though he oversees a research and education site teeming with marine life, the OSC aquarist acknowledges that working with the seals is the most satisfying part of his job. Deane, Tyler, and Babette are not simply on display, a spectacle for curious visitors. They are industrious and adaptable, a constant source of discovery for marine scientists.

“I often don’t know that they’re capable of doing something until they do it,” says Daryl. “That’s the challenge and the reward. We’re doing work that has never been done before with harp seals.”

“But of course it’s more than that. They’re family. They’re important to me.”


To the seashore
By Jamie Fitzpatrick | April 30, 2015 Photo David Howells


The students tentatively grip their scalpels. The herring lie waiting on the lab tables.“Alright, let’s look at some fish,” calls one of the instructors. They set to work, gently scraping scales from the flesh. “We start on the outside,” says a second instructor, moving from group to group. “Let’s get a good look at the fins, scales, mouth. Then we’ll open it up.”

There are a few giggles and whispers. But by the time they get into the internal organs, the whole room is deep in concentration. Fish dissection is one of the tasks for these students from Holy Trinity High in Torbay. Before their visit to Memorial University’s Ocean Sciences Centre (OSC) is over, they will also identify and classify invertebrates, learn about water quality and marine habitats, and do a training session with the harp seals.

Danielle Nichols would like to be part of it all. Leading the high school groups used to be part of her job. Instead, she’s in her third-floor office, planning tomorrow’s visit by a class from Discovery Collegiate in Bonavista. “I get so much pleasure out of teaching those kids,” she says. “It’s great that our graduate students have taken it over, but I miss it. I’m more the administrator now. But I still like to go down and stick my hand in a tank and tell them something about a particular fish or a sea cucumber.”

It’s largely due to her efforts that the high school program is thriving. It began with 130 students in 2013, and expanded to take in 400 students from twelve schools in 2014. As the OSC’s research marketing manager, her responsibilities are many. But the school visits have a personal connection for her. “I came here with a school group when I was a student, and I always remembered that visit. It stuck with me.”

A self-described “people person and problem solver,” Ms. Nichols has a master’s degree in marine studies from Memorial, and began her career working in the fisheries and aquaculture industry.

Since joining the centre, she has overseen a renewed commitment to bring the ocean, in all its spectacular diversity, to the larger community.
The OSC’s Public Education Program draws more than 18,000 visitors every summer. Its travelling touch tank keeps up a steady itinerary of summer camps, daycares and community events. Marine science staff, faculty and students also visit school science fairs and take part in public events like World Oceans Day.

The high school program was designed in collaboration with the Oceans Learning Partnership, a network of scientists and educators from Memorial, the Marine Institute and Parks Canada, and supported by the Hebron Project. Teachers from participating schools were involved as well, incorporating the program into the science curriculum.

To ensure each student a hands-on learning experience, two OSC lab spaces were refitted for school visits. The OSC is currently seeking funding to upgrade the labs.

“Kids today want to work with equipment like digital scopes and high resolution cameras. They want to project images on smart boards and tablets, and they want to be connected. The student in Labrador should be able to go online and talk to the student in St. John’s, and say, ‘Could you zoom in on the sea snail?’ and so on.”

Another priority is to make the Ocean Sciences Centre more accessible, which would allow visitors with disabilities easier access to the harp seals and touch tanks.

As an internationally recognized research centre, the OSC is always buzzing with projects initiated by marine science students, faculty and visiting scholars. Supporting that work is a big part of Ms. Nichols’ job.
Watching a first-time visitor pick apart a fish or hold a hermit crab offers a different reward. For Ms. Nichols, it’s a reminder of the spirit of curiosity and adventure that lies at the heart of ocean science. “Just to see the delight on their faces when they touch those animals, I thrive on it. In order to teach someone you have to have a passion for it. You have to be elbows deep in it, right there with the kids. You have to be excited about it. This is my passion.”