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Jaws wide open
Paul Cox, Aquarium Manager of the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, talks to Lesley Smeardon about the Aquarium’s work in communicating climate change and the complexities in the way we use ocean resources.
understanding, and the other bringing climate change back to the individual level with clear practical applications.

Paul Cox

“If you take the sharks away, you may as well close down the aquarium”, Paul Cox jokingly replies when asked to name the biggest draw of Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium. “The ‘shark challenge’ we face is to take the excitement that these creatures generate and turn it into interest in other marine animals and ocean life”, he adds. As for the sharks, Cox says, “In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen a real change in the way kids see sharks. There’s now a lot more understanding of the more benign nature of these animals as well as the threats they face.” This development of understanding is, of course, what Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium is all about. From sharks to sea urchins, climate change to coastal industries, cutting through the misunderstandings, developing greater knowledge and making the connections between oceans and visitors, are the communication challenges for much marine interpretation. These other issues are now making their way increasingly on to the agendas of aquariums and maritime museums everywhere. As part of two European projects the Aquarium has been able to take the issue of climate change, pretty much a constant in the media now, and look at it from two different perspectives; one looking at bridging high science with common

High science, common understanding
The EUR-OCEANS network of excellence is first and foremost about getting scientists working on climate change to communicate with each other, to share knowledge, equipment and data. Perhaps an obvious idea, but by no means easy to implement, the project, set up by the European Commission in 2005, involves around 500 scientists from 60 research institutions in 25 European Countries. The project work is long term, fairly laborious in nature, often about building complex ecosystem models and making them more and more predictive and, initially uninteresting to the public. That’s where the Aquarium’s outreach group comes in, of which Paul’s team at the Plymouth Aquarium

is part. “We’re one of eight aquariums working on the public outreach side of EUR-OCEANS”, Paul says. “We’re charged with trying to disseminate to the public what EUR-OCEANS is about and get them engaged in the concept of climate change.” The outreach project’s aim is to establish a baseline of understanding of the work going on by providing first hand accounts of the research through the production of a series of films. “Our team went to Svalbard in the Arctic, invited by the Norwegian Polar Institute”, Paul explains. “We spent about seven days on the research vessel ‘Lance’ travelling from the capital Longyearbyen up the west coast, talking to scientists, looking at what they were doing; essentially looking at the effect of changing water temperature on plankton and how the effects work their way up the food chain. One of the main things we

An arcade style exhibit looks at the impacts of marine aggregates and links to construction.


The edge Winter 2008

Pe op le

The climate kitchen, aimed at Key stage 2-3, shows children how they can minimise their own impact on climate change.
wanted to get across to the public was the importance of research longevity; the need for scientists to keep coming back to accumulate long term data. The film we made tried to get this point across.” The great thing about presenting this information at the aquarium is that people are often already very receptive. The shark factor comes into play once again. “We’re able to engage people quite easily at the aquarium”, says Paul. “Once we’ve got people’s attention, they’re pretty receptive and we can talk about a number of different subjects.”

As well as marine aggregates, the aquarium also has a floor dedicated to renewable energy looking at the potential power and energy of the sea. The ocean power exhibition gives students a chance to try and harness tidal power, among other things.
“Climate change is now on everyone’s radar but this comes with much misunderstanding. I had a conversation with a 10 year old the other day who told me that the Gulf Stream was going to shut down because of global warming. But then, after demonstrating such sophisticated knowledge, children can often make completely unrelated links between ozone and climate change. Climate Lab is about presenting the basics, showing there is uncertainty, but most importantly showing children what they can do individually to reduce their own impact.” stadiums – a very important fact for eight year old boys!” Paul comments. “It also highlights some of the dangers of dredging and the marine areas that might be most vulnerable to this.” A second phase of the project is due to start in January 2008, taking a roadshow out to local schools looking specifically at sustainability and the connectedness we all have to the sea. “It’s important to show how the issue is a balancing act with development, growth and jobs on one hand, and the need to safeguard the marine environment on the other”, Cox adds. Such a project also helps children realise that there are naturally grey areas in life, with no clear right or wrong approach. So how do the children cope with the grey areas? “Children are pretty receptive, accepting there are different opinions on issues”, Paul replies. “That said, though, they always want to have answers. They kind of need to come down on one side of the fence.” While sharks may be the initial draw for anyone visiting aquariums around the country, it’s very likely that the public will leave with a lot more understanding about the ocean than how long sharks have lived on the planet for or how powerful their jaws are. Unable to resist, that’s 400 million years and the most powerful on the planet! The edge Winter 2008

An ocean resource Up front and personal
Along with the perhaps more difficult job of communicating EUR-OCEANS, the team started work on building a unique web-based teaching resource, Climate Lab, which came out of a project (‘PENCIL’) whose aim was to strengthen links between science centres and schools. The project started in 2002 when interest in climate change was not so intense. Now of course there is a danger that the public are suffering from climate fatigue, believing they know enough about the subject, with already very firm opinions on the subject. “The interesting thing is how much people think they know about climate change compared to how much they actually do know”, Paul explains. Another area of communication work at the National Marine Aquarium is to explore the many conflicting uses that the oceans are being used for and the need to find a balance between all of these. Take marine aggregates for example – an industry, that in the UK alone, takes out 20 million tonnes of sand and gravel used in construction and building. “We set up a recent aggregates exhibition as part of a project called ‘Mineral Wealth, Seabed Health’. This looks at the connectedness of land and sea, demonstrating to children how aggregates dredged from the marine landscape end up being used in the very fabric of our every day life; in our roads, buildings and even our football


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