Ocean Educators Unite for Virtual Learning Series

Zoleka Filander

Zoleka Filander, a benthic ecologist and offshore scientist with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa, was the guest speaker on the inaugural episode of Ocean Diaries. The interactive virtual learning program, held as a Facebook live event, was co-organized by educators from BIOS, the Bermuda Zoological Society (BZS), and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI). During the 45-minute episode, Filander shared some of her experiences studying deep ocean marine ecosystems and their inhabitants and emphasized the importance of ocean conservation measures.

On May 28, 2020, a team of ocean educators from BIOS, the Bermuda Zoological Society (BZS), and the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute (BUEI) hosted the first episode of a virtual educational series called Ocean Diaries. The collaborative effort emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of the annual BIOS Mid-Atlantic Robotics in Education (MARINE) robotics challenge, as well as other educational activities on the island.

“Without the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) challenge, we wanted to find a way to connect Bermuda’s students with researchers from around the world and let them learn about ongoing scientific investigations and careers in ocean science,” said Kaitlin Noyes, director of education and community engagement at BIOS. Noyes previously joined educators from BZS and BUEI for the BZS virtual Earth Day celebration in April, which helped set the stage for this new partnership.

“More than ever our oceans need us to join together to share our knowledge for the health and well-being of our marine environment,” said Alex Amat, BZS youth programs coordinator. “Ocean Diaries is the perfect vehicle to provide education and awareness that will help to protect our blue planet.”

The inaugural episode of Ocean Diaries, titled “The More You Know, The More You Realize You Don’t Know,” aired during a Facebook live event and featured a conversation with Zoleka Filander, a benthic ecologist with the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries in South Africa.

Filander began working with the Department in 2014, just after completing her master’s degree in marine biology at the University of Cape Town, and describes the job as “her ticket to unraveling ecosystems in South African waters.” She was one of the first black females in South Africa to serve as a lead scientist on a research campaign and, in 2018, she was principal investigator on a project that uncovered the unique biology and ecology of Cape Canyon, a deep-water submarine canyon off the west coast of South Africa.

Today, as an offshore scientist, she uses a variety of ocean technologies, from underwater cameras to scientific instruments on research vessels, to study and assess deep ocean marine ecosystems and their inhabitants. Specifically, she studies the continental shelf of West Africa and conducts biodiversity assessments that show, among other things, how organisms interact with each other in their natural environment. Her work provides valuable data to resource managers and policymakers in support of conservation initiatives, such as the development of marine protected areas.

In addition to her full-time job with the South African Government, Filander is also a doctoral candidate in zoology and animal biology at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Her research focuses on classifying deep-water corals as part of a larger effort to understand the biodiversity of local waters.

During the 45-minute Facebook live event, Filander shared video footage from the deep waters of the continental shelf, bringing to life the variety of organisms that live at depths of 600 to 1,500 feet (200 to 500 meters), including colorful solitary corals and sea urchins, as well as a variety of delicate sponges and sea stars. She also shared insights into the biology and ecology of deep-water corals, the importance of supporting ocean conservation measures, and advice for young students interested in pursuing careers in science.

The series was hosted by Noyes and Amat and co-hosted by two young ocean ambassadors: Marseille Williams, a student at Clearwater Middle School, and BZS junior staff member Tomasina Pearman, a student at Bermuda High School. Parents, teachers, students, and scientists from around the island also participated in the discussion by submitting questions on the live Facebook feed.

“It was brilliant to see the dialogue between the aspiring young scientists like Tomasina and Marseille and an ocean explorer like Zoleka”, said Julie Steele, head of education at BUEI. “The chance for students to ask questions directly and meet scientists encourages us to stay curious and pursue our interests.”

“It was such a pleasure connecting with the two ambassadors,” Filander said. “They have given me hope for the next generation of explorers, that they might be able to help unravel these complex questions about the ocean.”

Noyes was touched by Zoleka’s powerful words regarding navigating science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) fields as a female, which included advice to embrace one’s individuality and not be afraid to pursue leadership positions.

The next episode of Ocean Diaries, “Harnessing the Power of the Ocean,” is scheduled for Tuesday, June 30 at 10:30am (Atlantic) as a Facebook live event on the BZS page and will feature South African yachtsman Neal Peterson. Peterson has completed multiple amazing journeys in his life, including a 9-month, 27,000-mile (43,000 kilometer) single-handed yacht race around the world in a vessel he designed and built himself. He will be sharing stories from his adventures and speaking about how sailors use scientific data to locate eddies, circular currents of water in the ocean that can impact a sailboat’s passage.