It’s important to teach our children to interact with marine life mindfully & here’s how I do it

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COMMENTARY: How can we better educate the younger generation on interacting with marine wildlife in a non-invasive manner?

As our island nation grows economically, our blue spaces are gradually diminishing and face unprecedented threats from development and now, from its own people. When faced with exotic marine wildlife, many may get excited and not know how to act appropriately.

Neo Mei Lin, 35, a marine biologist and mother, reflects on her experiences leading guided walks, as well as what being a parent has taught her about educating the next generation.

By Neo Mei Lin

I have a confession to make. And that is, I handle and catch marine organisms for a living.

My work as a marine biologist requires me to get very up-close and personal with my study organisms. As a seasoned intertidal researcher, I have studied nearly 30 seashores within Singapore waters with an average of two to three field trips per month in the past.

Over the last 15 years, I also have had my fair share of adventures while studying marine life in the wild. The most memorable incident took place in the Philippines while I was scuba-diving when a highly venomous sea snake had wrapped itself around my ankle. I remembered being completely oblivious to my surroundings (and of course, the sea snake’s presence) as I was occupied with taking pretty photographs. Fortunately for me, and to my friends’ relief, I escaped unscathed.

The writer, Neo Mei Lin scuba-diving off the Philippines just after her close encounter with the sea snake. Photo by Ben Bowes.

My work has taught me to observe marine wildlife using my eyes and not with my hands

I’ve learnt that although my years of experience may have given me a better grasp of the physical environment, no amount of it can prepare me for what marine life I will ‘meet’ in the wild. Rather, it is knowing how and when to respect the sea and its creatures that have made my interactions with them pleasant and safe. Also, these close encounters with wildlife at work have reinforced the importance and necessity of etiquette to guide interactions with wildlife, whether you’re a professional or novice.

Mei Lin surveying for giant clams at Pulau Biola, an island off the south of Singapore. Photo by Ria Tan.

Even though I have received training to handle marine organisms at work, I have never deemed the act as necessary to enhance my observations of them. In fact, when these animals are left on their own, I get to observe them in their natural element with little disturbance. In many other settings for animal watching such as safaris and scuba dives, the number one rule has been to never touch any of the wildlife in their natural habitat.

So, why are we treating some marine life, particularly the smaller invertebrates, differently? Yes, they can feel pain or distress – just like any other living creatures. Perhaps, many of us also don’t see the consequences of what handling can do to marine life just because we leave the site once we have received ‘enjoyment’. But in fact, we have left behind a trail of impacts that only few know about, especially those who monitor these seashores regularly.

Mindful of my actions and choosing a see-no-touch approach for nature guiding

As a marine conservationist and educator, it has been my goal to raise awareness of the presence of marine biodiversity along our coastlines. Our island home, Singapore is renowned for having one of the busiest shipping ports, yet so many of us remain unacquainted with the myriad of marine life living next door to us. In the face of development and the need to meet the nation’s land-use demands, our seashores also face ecological disturbance and disruption.

The exposed intertidal area on Cyrene Reef, a submerged reef located off the Pasir Panjang Port Terminal. Photo by Ria Tan.

When I first started intertidal walks back in 2008, my friends — who are some of the early pioneers in surveying our seashores — have taught me other ways to appreciate our marine life while leaving the creatures alone in their habitats. Our group has agreed on some “rules” which include refraining from using plastic containers, chopsticks, or tongs to capture organisms during intertidal trips.

After spending time with my friends on the seashores, I began to reflect on how my actions as a marine biologist may appear highly contradictory even though I have been taught the suitable techniques to handle marine life in the wild.

It dawned upon me that my intertidal walk participants might get the wrong impression that it is perfectly acceptable and alright to hold, touch and pick animals up if I were to handle animals the same way as I do for science.

This is why I have chosen to approach nature guiding without picking or touching any organisms. Instead, I encourage my participants to use their eyes and ears to seek out marine life on their own. If I see anyone attempting to touch these organisms, I will explain to them why it is not appropriate. Over time, I’ve seen how participants can enjoy their time with nature, particularly during impromptu encounters with marine life, without touching the animals. More importantly, I want to lead by example to show that it is not okay to handle marine life, regardless of my occupation.

Our behaviour and actions as guides will certainly have an impact on what they perceive to be acceptable interactions with marine wildlife. We may not realise it, but our actions speak way louder than any of our words.

I am grateful to know that I am not alone in this journey to raise marine conservation awareness in Singapore. In the last five years, there has been an increase in the number of nature-based education groups aimed at bringing locals to visit our intertidal seashores. Many of them are passionate about marine wildlife and want to improve environmental education through guided walks.

However, I’ve also realised that even within this community, we share mixed views on how to carry out an effective guided walk for the public. Sometimes, I would encounter groups who use some tools to handle the organisms so that participants on their trip can catch a glimpse of these animals.

Despite differences in opinions on the style of guiding or education, I appreciate that everyone in the intertidal community is all working towards the same goal.

At the end of the day, we need to ask ourselves: What exactly do we want the public to take away from such field trips?

Raising environmentally-conscious children starts at home

After the birth of my daughter, I felt a profound change in the way I view my work as a marine conservationist. For one, it brings greater meaning to my research and communication efforts, knowing that I can bring about positive changes in protecting our fragile ocean, and so the future generations may enjoy ‘the fruits’ of my hard work. My daughter is also my miniature ‘test subject’ on how I can teach others to become more environmentally conscious. So how do I instil good environmental values in her?

I believe the key to encouraging our children to care more about the environment is to help them develop an emotional bond to nature, the empathy for fellow animals (and plants!), and a sense of wonder and fascination. This means getting children to spend time exploring nature!

The writer and her family swimming off Changi Beach. Photo by Neo Mei Lin.

As a child, my parents would take my brother and I to explore interesting nature places such as Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve and Lim Chu Kang jetty. My early contact with nature has allowed me to become more compassionate to nature, which translated to having a more pro-environmental behaviour throughout my adulthood. Now that I am a mother, I am very eager to emulate my experiences as a child with my daughter.

At a tender age of 2, she has already taken two ‘overseas’ trips to visit my offshore office at the St John’s Island National Marine Laboratory. She was provided with a safe space to explore marine life in our aquarium tanks, to see the brightly-coloured giant clams and to reach out for the sea urchins (while realising that it might not have been such a good idea). Even though she hasn’t been to the seashore with me (being the worrywart that I am), she is able to identify and differentiate the general marine life based on what we have read together. Here’s a fun fact: the octopus is one of her favourite animals for now.

The writer and her daughter on the way to St John’s Island. Photo by Neo Mei Lin.

I would also lead by example – through words and behaviour – and guide her to mindfully observe the flora and fauna around us. For example, I would point out the different animals that we encounter on her way to childcare – from the ‘kor kor’ cat at our block downstairs to the squabbling mynahs fighting over food, and the hardworking ants on the walking path. I would share with her why we should not trample on ants and snails, and how we should ‘ask’ for permission (by showing your hands in front of their face) before touching the community cats. These seemingly minor gestures may seem insignificant to some people, but they are important lessons for children living in a City in Nature.

Already, I can see my daughter showing empathy towards her fellow creatures. At home, she would mindfully approach our cat by calling out its name and displaying her hands to ‘ask’ if she could touch it. In the outdoors, I have seen her walking around an ant trail or away from a snail. Of it all, she has also taught me to slow down my own steps to appreciate the really small things in life – reminding me of how I fell in love with this natural world.

The writer’s daughter lying down and looking at the ants on the ground. Photo by Neo Mei Lin.

Educating our children on the environment and biodiversity can and should start at home ⎯ with books, cartoons, and drawings. Exploring the great outdoors can enhance and reinforce what they have learnt at home and in school. More importantly, we should not be too quick to dismiss their budding passion for the environment and, instead, be supportive of their pro-environment behaviour.

Here are some ways to help build children’s environmental awareness:

Supporting local children book publications on wildlife biodiversity in Singapore.

Starting a recycling bin at home.

Encouraging good habits, such as no littering and saving water.

Instilling good ethics such as no handling of wildlife (unless accompanied by trained guides) and showing empathy for wildlife.

All in all, our interaction with flora and fauna requires mindfulness in our words, actions, and behaviour. It is especially important for parents to be mindful educators as we are our children’s first role models in life. My daughter and I are still growing along this journey of being environmentally conscious, and it’s never too young or old to start!

All photos courtesy of Neo Mei Lin, top image by Ria Tan and Neo Mei Lin.