Canadian Conservation Corps: How It Evolved My Ocean Literacy

WILDERNESS JOURNEY _ Members of cohort-four of the Canadian Conservation Corps paddled from one campsite to the next through a network of small lakes interconnected with one another through portages in Algonquin Provincial Park. Photo by Jasspreet Sahib.

The last four months have been a whirlwind of an adventure that took me to Toronto, Haliburton, Quebec City, Tadoussac, and Ottawa. It all happened through the Canadian Conservation Corps (CCC) program created by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

As part of the federal Canada Service Corps, this new program for young adults consists of three stages and spans a period of up to nine months. The first stage consists of a backcountry wilderness expedition, the second is a field placement, and the third stage is about giving back to the community and raising awareness of conservation.

My CCC adventure began when I travelled halfway across the country to meet 11 strangers with whom I would spend the next month sharing adventures. The concrete jungle that surrounds Toronto Pearson International airport soon changed to the ruggedness of the Canadian shield as we made our way to our camp in Haliburton. We later called ourselves the Fourtagers (being the fourth cohort in combination with our “love” of portaging). It was with them and two highly encouraging trip leaders from Outward Bound Canada that I had an adventure of a lifetime.

Disconnected from the world, all 14 of us spent 14 days together on a backcountry canoeing expedition in Canada’s oldest provincial park—the mighty Algonquin, a park made up of an intricate network of lakes interconnected with portages. Our days consisted of long paddles and hours of portages followed by well-deserved swim breaks and chuckles around the fire. We slept amidst the howls of wolves and rose to the beautiful, eerie calls of the loons. On one particularly exhausting day as I rafted up with my group, I noticed tiny, round gelatinous organisms floating in the water. “Ctenophores? No, this is freshwater”, I thought to myself. After plucking one from the water with a bailer, I took photos and videos of our sampled individual. Intriguingly, I later learned that the ~2.5 cm wide organisms we had encountered in North Tea Lake in Algonquin Park were, in fact, Craspedacusta sowerbii—an invasive freshwater jellyfish native to Yangtze River in China and first observed in Canada in 1950s.

Prochaine arrêt: la belle ville de Quebec.

With my passion for science communication, I was thrilled about my field placement at Whales Online (French: Baleines en Direct), an online magazine associated with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) in the beautiful, historic city of Quebec for my next stage.

My curiosity fueled my passion and I kept up-to-date with scientific publications and transformed them into magazine-style articles for general readers. Within a span of two and a half months, I wrote 21 articles and contributed to several pages on the Whales Online website. In doing so, I not only contributed towards enhancing the ocean literacy of our readers but that of myself as well. Teaching others truly increases ones understanding of the subject matter.

I wrote about a range of cetacean species, including Southern Resident killer whales, vaquitas, humpback whales, and North Atlantic right whales. I learned about technological advancements in the field of Marine Biology, such as the use of artificial intelligence for photo-identification of right whales and the use of ropeless fishing gear in their critical habitat. Robert Michaud, Scientific Director at GREMM, and Marie-Eve Muller, Editor at Whales Online, guided me throughout my placement, especially as I wrote my most challenging article ‘Putting a Face to a Call-Identifying Belugas Acoustically’. Belugas have one of the most diverse acoustic repertoire of any cetacean; my article featured Dr. Valeria Vergara’s breakthrough on understanding beluga vocal signatures and evidence of contact calls by members of herds when they got separated from one another.

FIELD PLACEMENT _ Jawbones from a fin whale, North Atlantic right whale and a humpback whale were left outside in the field near GREMM’s skeleton facility in preparation for their articulation process. Photo by Jasspreet Sahib.

The placement exceeded my expectations when I got to visit Tadoussac, a small village three hours east of Quebec City, home of GREMM’s field office. I spent a week assisting the skeleton articulation team and helped prepare three specimens destined for the interpretation centre located on the shores of the Saguenay Fjord. The three specimens were: Piper the North Atlantic right whale, a fin whale, and a juvenile humpback whale. I had learned about cetacean anatomy during my undergraduate classes but it was not until I worked with their skeletons hands-on that the dots connected in my mind. Right whales are more robust and slow-moving than fin whales, which have more streamlined bodies and are one of the fastest whales. I was dwarfed by the size of the right whale baleen and their bones are more dense as compared to those of fin whales and humpbacks. All these anatomical variations have evolved from many millennia of differing lifestyles. Right whales skim the surface of the water with their mouths open to continuously filter their prey whereas fin whales and humpbacks filter by forcefully expelling water through their baleen. This experience put it all into perspective for me.

Now that I am back in Victoria, I look forward to the next stage of my program where I will get to continue contributing towards ocean literacy through a public outreach project. The skills I learned from the previous two stages will forever be a keystone in my learning experience as I pursue future endeavours and aspire to continually progress.

Visit CanadianConservationCorps.ca to find out more. #CCCAdventure #LeadersToday #CanadaServiceCorps

Author Bio: Jasspreet Sahib is a member of the Canadian Conservation Corps, a new service program created by the Canadian Wildlife Federation. With a background in Marine Biology and Journalism Studies, she strives to contribute towards ocean literacy projects through science communication articles and public outreach initiatives