Environment: Porpoise with a purpose

30th May 1997 at 01:00
Journey Under the Sea: Getting to Know Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises Education pack including 30-minute video. #163;9.99, #163;1.75 postage. Age range: 8+

The recent controversy surrounding the disposal of Shell's decommissioned Brent Spar platform highlighted the public's lack of awareness of the fragility of the marine environment, even though most people want to protect it. Without conservation organisations to highlight the plight of natural resources, we too often turn a blind eye until it is too late.

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) has decided to tackle this problem. Its educational pack, written to meet the needs of key stages 1, 2 and 3, introduces children to the biology and conservation of marine mammals.

The pack comprises a set of activity sheets (thoughtfully produced in black and white for easy photocopying), teachers' notes and a full-colour poster and video. It chooses the killer whale or "orca" as its mascot, and leads children through a detailed study of the orca's life. The pack has been carefully thought-out and contains a great deal of informatio n.

Unfortunately, this attention to detail proves the pack's downfall. The activity sheets, while informative and nicely written, are burdened by large blocks of text uninterrupted by pictures or diagrams. A poor choice of difficult words also prevails - even the strongest of teachers' stomachs might turn at the thought of having to say "odontocetes" and "mysticetes" out aloud.

But the activities tie in well with the text, and, above all else, seem great fun. Demonstrations of the use of photographs to identify orca individuals, using mug shots of your class, sound an especially good idea - after all shouldn't every class have a rogues' gallery? Conservation and campaigning are introduced well, with beautiful explanations of the difference between paying a monthly subscription to some conservation society and getting out there and doing something.

Surely it is only by involving children in looking after our natural world that we can expect them to make a difference in the future.

The video that accompanies the pack is jam-packed with whale and dolphin underwater sequences that could have come straight out of a David Attenborough programme. And it is smoothly narrated by John Craven. It captures the grace and vivacity of these wonderful animals and helps viewers understand why they must be protected.

A key feature of the video is the use of whale-watching as opposed to the study of captive whales. The WDCS points out the cruelty of keeping orcas in aquariums for public entertainment and strongly promotes these more whale-friend ly techniques. But a discerning finger on the pause button may be required for younger audiences, as an unnecessary sequence of whale slaughter is a little strong a shock tactic for eight-year-olds.

Overall, the teaching pack provides an entertaining and informative insight into marine conservation and biology. As a class project, it would encourage many repeats. And, if the children are strongly moved, the WDCS also generously includes a whale adoption form. Now there's a class pet with a difference.

Journey Under the Sea is available from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, Freepost SN863, Bath BA1 2XF. Tel: 01225 334511

Caroline Brown is a marine biologist, working towards a PhD on deep-sea marine ecology at the Natural History Museum's department of zoology

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