‘It Was Just a Ledge of Life’
Marine biology and oceanography field course offers ‘life-changing’ experience
|U of G students get an on-board look at the Bay of Fundy tides and life during this summer’s St. Andrews field course. PHOTO BY TODD GILLIS|
BY ANDREW VOWLES
Seeing the highest tides in the world this summer was a high point for Elise Will. She was one of 20 U of G students who spent two weeks in late August on and around the Bay of Fundy, observing everything from whales to mussels during Guelph’s marine biology and oceanography field course in St. Andrews, N.B.
Besides those “giant tides” that squeeze in and out of funnel-shaped Fundy twice a day, the experience gave many of the students their first taste of the ocean and their first chance to tackle a real research project. No wonder integrative biology professor Todd Gillis — himself a graduate of the course and now its instructor — calls it “intense and life-changing” for senior undergraduates.
“This field course definitely turned out to be the highlight of my summer,” says Will, who’s completing her undergrad degree in marine and freshwater biology this semester. “I’d never been out east before, so just getting to go out there and see the unique environment was a great opportunity. The tides were especially amazing — I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This is one of several regular field courses offered by the Department of Integrative Biology, including courses run by Gillis’s colleagues to the Canadian Arctic and to the Algonquin Park field station.
The marine field course reflects interest among department members in marine biology research, including Gillis’s own physiological studies of ocean fish and inverte- brates.
“The marine program at Guelph is definitely building up more steam in terms of research done at the University and the expertise and ability to reach students,” he says.
For him, this summer’s sojourn to the Huntsman Marine Science Centre (HMSC) was also a return to roots. He took the course as a Guelph undergraduate and helped run it as a graduate teaching assistant and dive master working with departmental colleague Prof. Jim Ballantyne.
“St. Andrews is an amazing place,” says Gillis. “The tide is up to eight metres high. That makes for an incredibly diverse intertidal zone.”
The HMSC is located in Passamaquoddy Bay, at the mouth of the Fundy just east of the New Brunswick-Maine border.
Its intertidal zone — the area of shore alternately immersed and exposed by those tides — teems with organisms feeding on upwelling nutrients and adapted to handle regular cycles of seawater immersion and exposure to air and light.
Working from the shore or on the centre’s research boat, the students looked at those animals and their environment for their research projects. The course also included whale watching off Grand Manan Island to study behaviour, feeding patterns and movements.
The course is intended for students considering research careers or further studies in marine biology, says Gillis.
Visiting St. Andrews — and seeing northern Manitoba earlier during the Arctic ecology field course taught by integrative biology professors Paul Hebert and Sarah Adamowicz — has helped cement post-graduate plans for student Kara Layton.
Now completing her final semester in marine and freshwater biology and serving as data manager at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario, Layton aims to pursue graduate studies in biology.
She was the veteran in New Brunswick this summer, having done a similar stint there during high school. Still, she found plenty of new sights this summer. One misty morning, she spotted starfish, sea urchins and whelks carpeting an outcropping revealed by low tide. “It was just a ledge of life.”
Recalling his experience aboard the Huntsman research boat in 2002, marine biology graduate Ben Speers- Roesch says: “I particularly enjoyed the trawling because few if any of the students, myself included, had done that before. It’s great fun to sort through a catch filled with dogfish, skates, sculpins, giant lobsters and flatfish on the deck of a rolling ship.”
He also enjoyed the “one-on-one time” with Ballantyne and the taste of real research. Speers-Roesch completed a master’s degree here and is now studying fish physiology for a PhD at the University of British Columbia.
Heather Koopman took the marine field course in 1991 and never really left the Bay of Fundy. After a master’s here and a PhD at Duke University, she became an animal physiologist and faculty member at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. During that time, she has returned repeatedly to a Grand Manan research station, where she and her own grad students now study organisms from zooplankton to whales.
Referring to Guelph’s field offering, Koopman says: “The course is great because it combines real marine experiences with good teaching and guidance carrying out what is likely a student’s first independent project. It’s a good place to learn how things can go wrong and how you can fix them.”