Learning all about mangroves

Get them while they’re young. That’s the philosophy behind an ongoing mangrove education programme within Cayman’s schools. 

Educator and conservationist Martin Keeley, who drew up the teaching programme called Marvellous Mangroves, was in Cayman recently to video one of the classes in action and to conduct a field trip with students at the Bodden Town Primary School. 

Cayman is one of 10 countries where the programme has been introduced or is about to be launched. It focuses both on teaching young students about their local eco-systems and on training teachers to teach both students and other teachers. 

Mr. Keeley said it all began back in the late 1980s, when he was involved in an non-governmental organisation in Canada that was trying to protect local wetlands threatened by development. 

“It was a small group, very intense, to stop them building 49 golf courses. Quickly, we got into public education and very shortly, after a year or so, we realised if we were going to do anything with wetlands, we had to teach the kids.  

“We had a lot of teachers involved, it was a trans-boundary group of teachers and biologists and we developed a teacher guide called Discover Boundary Bay. That was the essence of the guide to teach kids how wetland ecology worked and also human impacts, and it evolved. It was published in 1992, with a follow-up a year later.  

“We had a travelling wetland road show in British Columbia and northern Washington state and worked in the local community and with the local schools. The idea was to spend intense time with several classes, teach them through hands-on science in primary schools the wetland functions and the eco-system functions and to do it in a really cool way,” Mr. Keeley explained. 

The Canadian government went on to incorporate the programme into the school curriculum. 

When Mr. Keeley moved to Cayman Brac in 1998, he adapted the programme for use in mangrove wetlands, working with local teachers, the Department of Environment and the National Trust and came up with Marvellous Mangroves, which was published in 2001. CUC has been sponsoring the initiative in Cayman since its inception. 

“It then was incorporated into year 5 curriculum and it is still taught,” Mr. Keeley said. 

The programme is being used or has been adapted for use in Belize, China, Brazil, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Australia, Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia and has been translated into Spanish, Portuguese and Mandarin Chinese. 

Last month, children of Year 5 in Bodden Town Primary School got a taste of mangroves as part of the programme – literally. The programme, led by Cathy Childs, involves a field trip with Sea Elements which takes people on eco-tours through Cayman’s mangroves, where participants are invited to lightly lick mangrove leaves to taste the salty leaves.  

The field trip was followed by some role play at the school, at which the children dressed up as creatures commonly found in mangroves – fish, birds and crabs – and sat inside a giant inflatable shark for a storytelling session about wetlands and the animals that live there. 

The Bodden Town session was filmed and will be included in a video documentary showing what the programme entails. The video-tape will be used to promote the programme and also to be used internationally for the Mangrove Action Project’s Marvellous Mangroves project. 

“We take the structure of Marvellous Mangroves and adapt it for use in whichever country you’re working in. You can’t do it on your own, so we work with local NGOs or government agencies and create a working group with teachers and scientists and go through it and adapt it for their flora and fauna and cultural values and, of course, translate it,” Mr. Keeley said. 

In many of the countries where the programme has been introduced, including Cayman, mangroves are threatened by development. Mr. Keeley said restoring mangroves in areas where they have removed to make way for condos or golf courses or farming is hugely problematic and is normally only possible if the hydrological conditions that existed before a site was dredged or altered are replicated. 

The Marvellous Mangroves programme is divided into five sections, including 1) learning about the mangroves and plants, how they function and the part they play in the ecosystem; 2) the habitat and the creatures in the mangroves and how they adapt; 3) pollution and human impacts, including water quality testing; 4) the field trip; and 5) what we can do to and how we can change to protect and lessen the impact on mangroves. 

“The idea is in different places to be able to restore what we’ve messed up. You can’t always do it, the ecological mangrove restoration process involves some planting programmes, but more often than not, as long as you have an exiting source of seedlings, the mangroves will restore themselves if the hydrology is in place,” said Mr. Keeley. 

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Sharon Whitmore of Sea Elements shows a jellyfish found in mangrove wetlands to students on the field trip.. – PHOTO: SUBMITTED

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Martin Keeley on a field trip in Belize with local teachers.
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