Sea for yourself

Kids climbing the rocks at Praia da Amoreira, bending over tide pools with their hand lenses. Other children running towards the dunes, digging holes in the sand. Just another day at the beach? No, at CERES’ intertidal workshop students swap their textbooks for a real life natural environment, investigating everything from marine creatures and their seaside habitats to erosion and deposition.

Pictures by Kyle Rodriguez

See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016


The group of 22 children is led by geologist Dr Astrid Blum (44) and biologist Dr Axel Bamberger (48). The German couple set up the CERES InternationalProject when they moved to the Algarve seven years ago.

Dedicated to conservation, field-based education and environmental research, normally they organise field trips for university students, academics and scientists. Today, however, their students are children from the Aljezur International School, ranging in age from 10 to 16.

Astrid and Axel aim to take the classroom into the open with their intertidal workshop, encouraging the schoolchildren to go outside and see everything in real life. Because in a society full of computer screens, online games and smartphones, even living in a place as beautiful as the Algarve doesn’t automatically guarantee an outdoor lifestyle. “It’s surprising how little children get outside nowadays. Of these kids, 9 out of 10 hardly ever go to the beach,” Axel says. After a warning not to destroy anything, they’re sent off with identification guides and trays.

Shouts indicate the first find of the day: a little hermit crab. Many more will follow as the children search the rocky intertidal area of Amoreira beach in the north-western part of the Algarve for signs of life. A sea cucumber is discovered next. Considered a delicacy in China, here the students are wary to touch the black slimy thing, squealing at its ‘yuckiness’. “We usually have university groups, which is totally different,” laughs Axel. “They have a very clear-defined research aim, whereas here the link to the curriculum is a bit looser.”

Still, where the casual observer might just see some kids having fun on the rocks, there’s more to it. “This way, they learn to appreciate the environment better than if they’d just sit in a classroom. And for conservation, you first need appreciation,” says Axel. “By educating young people about nature, we’re trying to get them more interested in conservation,” Astrid adds. It fits into CERES’ goal of setting up an ecological conservation centre between Aljezur and Monte Clérigo, which allows for field study and outside learning. With this centre, which is planned to be entirely self-sufficient, the couple wants to set an example. “There are still people saying you can’t recycle your water, you can’t build without concrete and you can’t live fully on solar power. We want to show them that this all is possible.”

For now though, back to the seaside where a boy has discovered an octopus, partly hiding in an underwater cave. After taking pictures of the one visible pink tentacle with their phones, the students wander off exploring further, climbing over stones covered in slippery green algae and encountering nature’s anti-slip: barnacles that have attached themselves to the rocks.

The white plastic trays are soon filled with crabs, tiny cuttlefish and spiky sea urchins, which have thousands of small legs and also use their feet to cover themselves with shells as form of sun protection.

“The Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina is unique; it’s still very untouched by humans, especially considering we’re in Europe,” says Axel, his enthusiasm for field work equal to that of the children directly after the octopus discovery. “From a biological point of view you’re on the overlap between Mediterranean species and species from the Northern hemisphere, which means there’s a huge diversity.” This shows: the kids manage to bring up just about every animal hiding in the rocky intertidal habitat. Like limpets, aquatic snails who stuck themselves to the rocks with an insanely good suction system. They have their own grazing area and feed by scraping tiny algae and bacteria of the rocks. Or, as the children put it: “They make a sound like Rice Krispies!”

The girls of the group are especially enthralled by the bright green sea anemones. Looking sweet and pretty, these water-dwelling animals are actually vicious predators, especially if you’re a shrimp. Similar to stinging nettles, they enter little harpoon-like darts into any organism they come into contact with. Touch one with your hand and you’ll notice it sticks. Naturally, the kids all want to try. Also popular is the starfish they caught, which bizarrely has seven arms as it lost one of the normal five and grew back three small ones in its place. Comparing various sized hermit crabs, Axel explains about these crabs changing shells as they grow. As the children pass the crustaceans around, (managing to only drop them occasionally), they notice the softer shell of one that has recently moved house. A few days and it’ll be as hard as concrete.

The other half of the group is, reluctantly at first, looking at rocks, which are considered way less spectacular than the weird live sea creatures. Here, the link to the textbook is even more prominent, as in school they’ve been studying how mudstone has formed million years ago when pushed together by the African and European tectonic plates. On the beach, Astrid hands out pieces of rock so the children can feel for themselves. “In geology you do a lot of field trips. Geology all happens outside, in nature, so it makes sense studying this stuff where you can see and touch it, rather than learning about it indoors,” she explains.

Astrid also talks about the dangers of the marine environment, pointing out geohazards such as rock falls and landslides. The kids pay attention; sunbathers who’ve taken up residence directly underneath a rocky overhang are considered ‘very stupid’ in hushed voices. The textbook comes to life as erosion and deposition is explained by digging in the sand. Collecting samples from both the dunes and the area closer to the sea, the children let it slide through their fingers and notice the different shapes of grains. When Astrid gives potentially life-saving tips on how to deal with currents, they forget about their initial disappointment about the lack of animals and discuss the best place to swim.

Things like tides, sandbanks and deltas just make more sense if you see them in real life instead of explained on paper or computer screen. “I’m hoping this way they won’t forget the stuff they’ve learned so quickly,” Astrid says with a smile. As she starts explaining how a wave cut platform is formed, the kids interrupt. “We know.” “It’s because of sea and tides.” “We’ve just seen the waves crashing over it.” “You have to watch out on the green bits, they slide.” “Yeah, better walk on the volcano-like anti-slip things, but they hurt.” After exploring the area themselves, feeling the sharp edges beneath their feet when carefully stepping from sand to algae to barnacles, it seems unlikely these children will ever forget the rocky intertidal environment. So what are you waiting for? Apart from Amoreira, the Algarve has dozens of other beaches on offer. Kids or no kids, shut down that computer, go outside and explore!


See the original article in Enjoy the Algarve – magazine July 2016

Posted in Features, People.