The kids are back in school! In ocean school, that is!

This fall marked the return of our popular “Exploring the Salish Sea” floating classroom program. The program is led by Eagle Wing Tours in partnership with schools and marine educators in the Victoria region.

“Education on and off the water is essential to ocean conservation, which is at the heart of everything we do,” says Eagle Wing Tours co-owner and captain Brett Soberg. “This program fulfills a long-time dream of ours. It’s a great success thanks to visionary partners equally committed to a common end goal—to inspire the next generation of ocean stewards.”

Session one: Introductory presentation in the classroom

Igniting young imaginations

Launched in fall 2018, the program combines classroom and experiential learning to ignite a passion for ocean conservation among local schoolchildren. To date, more than 2,200 students from Grades 4-8 in Victoria’s School District 61 have been through the program.

The program was paused in 2020/21 due to COVID-19. Eagle Wing used the time to expand its marine education team and create a comprehensive education manual. It also welcomed two new partners. The program resumed this September with up to 2,000 students scheduled to participate over fall and winter 2021/22.

All sessions are operating with COVID-19 safety protocols in place.

Program partners are Victoria School District 61 (SD61), the Royal British Columbia Museum (RBCM),the University of Victoria’s Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) and Pacific Northwest Transportation Services (PNWTS).

Session two: visiting Race Rocks Ecological Reserve! / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Four-part education program

The primary goal of the program is to help students make an emotional connection to the Salish Sea and to nurture in them a sense of social responsibility.

To do this, program is organized into four parts. The first three sessions are led by Eagle Wing’s marine education team. The team works closely with each teacher who chooses an “essential question” from the BC school curriculum as a learning theme for their class.

Examples of essential questions include: How are living and non-living things dependent on each other in the Salish Sea? How does human activity impact the Salish Sea? How can we take better care of the Salish Sea environment?

Each essential question is woven with Indigenous perspectives, knowledge and history. The essential question addresses themes of environmental stewardship, conservation, natural resources and the economy, and sustainability.

For many of the kids this is their first time ever on a boat! / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Making that connection

The first learning session is an introductory classroom presentation that reviews the natural and cultural history of the Salish Sea.  

The second session is an experience on board an Eagle Wing Tours vessel. Students see a variety of marine wildlife and learn first-hand about the ecology of kelp forests. Each tour follows the class’s chosen learning theme.

“Many of these students have never been on the water before, so this session is a very special experience for them,” says Eagle Wing naturalist and interim program director Meaghan McDonald. “We want them to feel the wind in their face and absorb the sights, sounds and smells of the Salish Sea. It’s all about making that connection with the ocean environment.”

The third session is a hands-on activity that ties together what the students have learned so far. Examples include tide pool exploration, a food web game or a salmon obstacle course. “As we work through the three sessions, we can see that connection to the ocean happening,” says McDonald. “It’s amazing to watch!”

Session three: a hands-on activity, often at a local beach / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Other education partners

Members of the learning and community engagement team at Ocean Networks Canada, a University of Victoria initiative that operates world-leading cabled ocean observatories. They are providing educational content support and supplementing some sessions with instrumentation demos.

Pacific Northwest Transportation Services offers carbon-neutral transportation to the boat session for kids and their teacher chaperones.

The final component of the program is a show-and-tell “total takeover” day facilitated by the Royal British Columbia Museum. In this wrap-up session, each classroom presents an artifact they’ve created that reflects their understanding of and connection to the Salish Sea.

“The students have a lot of freedom with this session,” says McDonald. “Each class sets up in the section of the museum that’s relevant to what they’ve learned. Then they present their artifact to each other and to the general public. They get really involved. They’re so proud of what they’ve learned!”

Unfortunately, the wrap-up session will not be held at the museum in fall 2021 due to its COVID-19 protocols. Alternate arrangements are being made for the students to display their artifacts.

Whale baleen and krill are among the educational aids used on the boat session! / Eagle Wing Tours photo

Rave reviews

The program has earned rave reviews from participating schools and teachers. It’s so popular with teachers and students that the school district uses a draw to select which classes will participate!

Says one school principal: “The first-hand sensory experience of being out on the water sparks student excitement and curiosity. Cultivating a sense of wonder and connection with the natural world in young people is vital to creating a more sustainable society. Eagle Wing programs help our schools do just that!”

Says a teacher: “There’s no better way for our students to learn about the natural and cultural history of the Salish Sea than being on board with Eagle Wing! This incredible place-based education program allows students to experience our rich marine back yard in a safe and exhilarating way that will stay with them for a lifetime.”

Examples of artifacts created by classes

Future plans

The “Exploring the Salish Sea” program is currently open to all schools in Victoria’s School District 61. Our long-term plan is to steadily expand participation to other school districts, private schools and hopefully Indigenous communities on Vancouver Island. The goal is 10,000 students a year by 2030.

The program takes a lot of logistical and content planning by Eagle Wing staff, working with community partners. Yet it is operated at zero profit to the company. “We run this program because it’s the right thing to do for ocean conservation,” says Soberg.

“This is just the beginning of our long-term commitment to helping our youth see, hear and feel the beauty and importance of this special place we call the Salish Sea.

“The ocean needs our help. What better way than inspiring future generations to get excited and passionate about making a difference?”

Learn more about education and outreach activities at Eagle Wing Tours

Blog written by Valerie Shore, marine naturalist, Eagle Wing Tours

Published Nov. 18, 2021