Conservation Inspiration: UVic Environmental Studies Field Course

By Natalie Ban, University of Victoria

The room was buzzing with excited conversations. Undergraduate students were mingling with community members on Saturna Island. Diverse opinions abounded. What to do about the overabundance of deer? What about the feral goats? Coastal erosion? Invasive species? Southern resident orcas? Vessel noise? Seastar wasting disease? Rockfish conservation? The proposed National Marine Conservation Area Reserve?

Students presenting their project ideas at a community meeting on Saturna Island, hosted by the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society
Students presenting their project ideas at a community meeting on Saturna Island, hosted by the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society

Picture another scene: we’re bushwhacking around an old First Nations burial site so as not to disturb it, hearing about reconciliation between settlers and First Nations through conservation covenants, and soon arrive at an incredible 100 Mile House. Solutions, however large or small, to pressing issues of our time do abound.

Visiting the inspirational Briony Penn on Salt Spring Island
Visiting the inspirational Briony Penn on Salt Spring Island

This is what this University of Victoria, School of Environmental Studies field course is all about: connecting students with places and people who care about marine and coastal conservation. All for the sake of the critters that live there and the people who rely on these places who are doing something to protect them. We spent five days (February 9–13, 2015) aboard the magnificent schooner Passing Cloud, learning from and about the Salish Sea and people living in Canada’s southern Gulf Islands.

This is no normal university course, full of talking heads and passive learning. There were no PowerPoint lectures. Instead, there were lots of conversations. Conversations with the inspiring people who create change. And conversations among the students and others aboard Passing Cloud, including the fabulous captain Russ Markel.

The Schooner Passing Cloud, our home and classroom for 5 days
The schooner Passing Cloud, our home and classroom for 5 days

The philosophy behind this course is to get students to experience the issues that they have been learning about in other, classroom-based courses. Most students were in the last year of their studies, enabling them to compare this experience with classroom learning. Their base of knowledge makes this experiential course so much more meaningful. Indeed, many of our discussions reflected on which aspects of courses resonated with conservation experiences and challenges of the Salish Sea.

Ultimately, though, there is nothing like hearing about conservation successes and challenges from the people who are creating change. I am so grateful for the enthusiasm of the people who gave their valuable time to meet with the students. The stories of conservation successes on the ground and in the water are inspiring to students, who are usually bombarded with news of environmental disasters and hopelessness. Thank you.

Students working hard on their project aboard Passing Cloud.
Students working hard on their project aboard Passing Cloud

See for yourself what the students have to say about this immersion experience in conservation. One of the assignments for the course was to write a blog about some aspect of their experience. CaNOE has kindly offered to post some of these blogs—look out for them in the weeks to come!