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Behind the Scenes at Ocean Life Education

They say never work with children or animals – but Richard Coward is happy to do both. The director of Ocean Life Education has spent the past 13 years combining two of his passions – protecting marine life and inspiring young minds. But the time spent in classrooms, early learning centres and at community events makes up only a fraction of the working day for Richard and his team of educators.

The day usually starts before first light, checking on the crew of animal ambassadors to make sure they are healthy and raring to go on an adventure. The creatures are chosen on a rotational basis to ensure they receive rest days between their public appearances, minimising fatigue. Bags of oxygenated water are filled to provide a safe and comfortable space inside the travel tubs which will become their home for their time on the road.

Apart from the cargo of animals, the van is loaded with extra salt water, games, artefacts, toys and books depending on the programs booked for the day. Details are checked and notes read through to make sure the educator is as prepared as possible for the day ahead.
Then they join the line-up of commuters, criss-crossing South East Queensland as they slowly progress towards their first show of the day.

Unpacking the animals and exhibits is an artform in itself, with tubs carefully stacked to limit the numbers of trips back and forwards. We allow half an hour to set up, giving the animals new water so they can breathe easily while on display. We arrange them in a user-friendly way that allows enthusiastic little participants ample room to feel their way around our very tactile exhibits. Children wash their hands without soap to ensure no chemicals or sunscreen residue is passed onto our animals.

We normally present multiple sessions at any one location, quickly re-setting between shows to make it fresh for the new group. Pack up time takes another half hour as water is changed again to prepare the animals to move to a new location where we repeat the whole process.
When the final program is over and everything secured in the van, we head home to return our animal ambassadors to their tanks and begin the feeding regime. We have half a dozen different food sources to distribute to our creatures, their diets carefully regulated to mimic conditions in the wild.

On days when we don’t have displays to set up, we maintain our tanks, receiving 1,500 litres of ocean water every couple of weeks which we store and use when needed.
Even though our animals may only be on display for short periods in the day, a lot goes into keeping them happy and healthy. But we know all the cleaning, all the prep work and all the sitting in traffic is worth it if it helps the next generation learn to love, appreciate and protect our waterways.

Rock Pools Rock!

A treasure trove of marine delights hides in plain sight along our coastline.

Rock pools are tiny but complex ecosystems, where only the hardiest of inhabitants survive the onslaught that nature throws at them.

Pounded by waves, whipped by the wind and exposed to the sun, the creatures who lie within have learnt to adapt to their constantly changing world.

At high tide they are connected to the greater ocean environment, but when the water level drops, they are isolated, and vulnerable to predators and the elements.

Water temperatures can vary by as much as 20 degrees in the shallowest of pools from the intensity of the midday sun at low tide, to the flushing of cooling currents when the shoreline floods again.

Making the most of available shelter is the key to survival in the inter tidal zone. Sea urchins wedge themselves into cramped crevices, sea stars and sea cucumbers cling to the underside of rocks, making them often invisible at a casual glance.

Spotting the life inside these pools takes patience and care. Small fish will dart to the edges when noise, vibrations or shadows alert them to potential predators but stay quiet and still for long enough and they pop back out.

A carefully concealed creature can give away its hidey-hole by one misplaced limb that can take minutes of constant gazing to spy.

And while it may be tempting to delve a little deeper into the darker patches, beware the dangers that lurk within.

Blue ringed octopus are only little but their venom packs a punch – one bite from these highly venomous cephalopods can kill a human in minutes. A hands off approach with rock pools is the safest option.

But if visiting the coast is not a practical option, Ocean Life Education can bring the rock pool to you in a safe yet interactive incursion designed to showcase the animals that live around our beaches.

Sea stars, sea cucumbers and sea urchins can all be carefully handled during our visits to schools, early learning centres and special events, as we explain the important role our oceans play in keeping our planet healthy.

We offer a wide range of programs that align with the Australian curriculum and cover topics such as adaptations, habitats and human impact.

Let Ocean Life Education inspire your students to become interested in coastal environments and as they look, listen and touch their way to a greater understanding of the marine world, they will start to see why rock pools rock.

Have Tank will Travel

Usually our sea animals bask in the 5 star luxury of their home tanks on the Sunshine Coast, where everything is carefully monitored to create an optimum environment, but when they hit the road to educate our next generation of ocean lovers, things get a little more tricky.

Our touch tanks are a home away from home for our animal ambassadors and we work hard to ensure things are as stress free as possible while they play a vital role in helping children understand and appreciate the aquatic world.

They travel all over Brisbane and the rest of South East Queensland, visiting early learning centres, schools and shopping centres, giving youngsters the opportunity to get up close and personal with these exotic creatures.

Under careful supervision, children are able to gently interact with our sea stars, sea cucumbers and spiny urchins, using our one finger touch policy that ensures our animals remain relatively undisturbed while cocooned in their cases.

To protect both animal and young enthusiast, our baby sharks are carefully contained in see through containers which allow for thorough inspection without causing damage.

Likewise, the colourful tropical sea cucumbers have such delicate feeding tentacles, they need to be kept clear of probing fingers.

But the fresh water turtles are only too willing to subject themselves to some soothing shell massage, all in the name of fostering a greater human/animal relationship.

We limit the amount of time our animal ambassadors spend away from their homes, rotating our starfish, cucumbers, urchins, sharks and turtles to make sure they are well rested and fed before embarking on their next mission to help save the oceans.


Shark Soup

They are possibly the most misunderstood of all the sea creatures – apex predators capable of inspiring both fear and fascination in equal measure.  But far from being the killing machines portrayed in the movies, most sharks are more at risk from us than we are from them.

Of the almost 400 species identified, only a dozen or so are considered dangerous to humans. We’re certainly not their preferred diet, but we can easily be mistaken for more tasty morsels such as seals.   Statistically, we’re more likely to be killed by a rogue champagne cork than a shark.   On average only 5 people are taken every year, whereas humans slaughter 100 million sharks annually, causing all sorts of problems.

Sharks are a natural part of the marine ecosystem.  From their perch on top of the food chain, they help to maintain a balance in our oceans, preventing smaller species from overpopulating, which can then cause a ripple effect, threatening our delicate coral reefs.

And most of the time we don’t even know they are there.  More often than not, sharks will actively try to avoid us when we venture into their territory.  And while they populate the shoreline all around the Australian coast, Queensland numbers tend to increase in the winter months when their food sources move into the warmer waters.

They may not be as extrovert as the humpback whales, but grey nurse sharks cause just as much excitement amongst scientists. It’s estimated only 1500 of these animals still live off the East Coast of Australia giving them the unenviable status of critically endangered.

Part of the problem with the grey nurse sharks is they look fairly fearsome while remaining relatively sedate underwater – they’re often referred to as the Labradors of the sea due to their docile nature. But this has also made them easy targets for fishermen, with the grey nurse often snagged on hooks as they take up the offer of an easy feed.  Added to which they are slow to mature and reproduce few young.  While they are protected, it doesn’t stop accidental death at the hands of humans.

But marine biologists are studying the grey nurse and trying to figure out ways to help them to repopulate including banning fishing in areas they are known to congregate.  Ocean Life Education’s Shark Discovery program looks at the issues facing endangered species like the grey nurse and tries to separate fact from fiction to make us finally appreciate that the greatest threat in the ocean is not from sharks but humans.