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Seaquaria in Schools

Originally appears in the Spring 2011 issue

It’s 1999. The phone rings. A community volunteer is greeted by the anxious voice of an elementary school student. Their beautiful Painted Anemone has a death grip on their lumbering but lovable Sea Cucumber. What should they do? They wash and rinse their hands well so that they don’t introduce any harmful chemicals into their aquarium ecosystem, reach into the tank, and gently remove the cucumber from certain death.

Ten minutes later, the cucumber is safe. With skill and compassion, the anemone was placed into a bucket of seawater and into the refrigerator for return to a more appropriate setting. The students think it is too big and aggressive to live in their “seaquarium”. They recognize that this high level predator with stinging tentacles was too much for the ecosystem in their tank.

These young stewards have taken their job as seaquarium guardians very seriously. They learned to work co-operatively, to think and act critically and to hone their leadership skills as they encountered problems that needed to be solved—largely because of the deep emotional tie they had developed with the plants and animals in their seaquarium.

With their great variety, grandeur and mystery, ocean creatures have always fascinated us. One way to provide a “living window” into the marine environments that support these creatures is to create stable ecosystems in re-circulating 70 gallon aquaria in schools. Filled with cold seawater and stocked with marine plants and animals from near shore waters, they allow everyone to experience marine environments first hand.

These seaquaria provide opportunities for young people to discover the beauty and complexity of the marine world in an interactive and emotional manner because the creatures themselves become teachers. As students observe and care for the life in their aquarium, they come to recognize, understand and respect what keeps ecosystems balanced, based on observing how the creatures themselves behave. They identify the steps needed to return the ecosystem to a more balanced state, if needed, or enhance it in different ways. Students’ own observations and actions help them to suddenly become experts on and appreciate the importance of 50 or more weird and wonderful little critters. They can make informed choices about stocking their aquarium with 50+ species that include grazers and particle feeders rather than top end predators; plants and “living rocks” for shelter and food; and bright algae and sea grasses for depth and colour. This kind of learning bears witness to the power of creatures as teachers.

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Catherine Carolsfeld is the co-founder of WestWind SeaLab Supplies. Joachim Carolsfeld is the Executive Director of the World Fisheries Trust. Mary Holmes is a head teacher at Pacific Heights Elementary School in Surrey, BC.  The authors thank the vibrant group of over 100 educators from 35 schools in British Columbia who agreed to share their successes and challenges. The Seaquaria in Schools Program is co-ordinated by a partnership between WestWind SeaLab Supplies and World Fisheries Trust, a non-profit organization in Victoria, British Columbia that can be reached at (250) 380-7585.

The Seaquaria in Schools Teacher Support Manual includes details needed to set up and maintain a chilled saltwater aquarium, along with K-12 lesson plans developed by the Seaquaria Teachers network. It is free and available from: and