Dazzling them with science

Company takes eco-tours one step further

Shawn Hayward shawn.hayward@thepacket.ca
Published on March 22, 2014

While making a living on the ocean is an old concept for Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, Jan Negrijn has made a science of it. 

As owner and operator of Coastal Connections, Negrijn uses his background in marine biology to teach schoolchildren, teachers and tourists about the ocean ecosystem, and has plans to expand his business to include a summer camp and a second vessel.

It began at the Marine Institute, where Negrijn worked as chair of the harvesting programs in the school of fisheries for 14 years. From 1987 to 2007 he was in charge of one of the institute’s 45-foot longliners, The Mares.

The Marine Institute had a program that gave schoolchildren tours on The Mares, and Negrijn says Coastal Connections was a natural extension of that.

Negrijn saw a gap in ocean science education in the school system and wanted to give more kids the experience of seeing ocean research firsthand.

His wife is from Random Island and

Negrijn started his own business giving tours there during the summer while working at the Marine Institute in winter. Smith Sound, near Random Island, is an interesting spot for ocean research, Negrijn says, and he started using a former Department of Fisheries and Oceans wharf as his base.

He incorporated his company in 2004 and worked out of Random Island until 2007 when a tour boat operator in Newman Sound in Terra Nova National Park retired. Negrijn moved his company there the next year. A number of schools were already making field trips to the park, and Coastal Connections began catering to them.

The groups he takes out are no more than a dozen people and he demonstrates a number of techniques biologists use to study the ocean, including measuring water temperature and salinity at different depths, collecting plankton samples and viewing them under a microscope.

“In most of the marine eco-tours in the province, it’s mostly about whales, puffins and icebergs,” says Negrijn.

“Those kind of trips are more observational. It’s more look and see. They’re wonderful trips but ours is a little different. We’re trying to show people the whole ocean ecosystem. It’s really fabulous how everything is interconnected.”

Negrijn says the two-and-a-half-hour excursions are meant to examine marine biology in depth and foster a sense of stewardship for the ocean environment. Scientists working in the area also use the data they collect for their research.

In 2010, Negrijn wrote a proposal to expand the company, and next year the Hebron Project sponsored Coastal Connections, providing money for it to buy a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), multi-beam sonar and a deep-water camera.

Negrijn uses the equipment to give students and tourists glimpses of the ocean bottom and a better understanding of the marine ecosystem.

Funding also helped them expand to provide tours for 20 schools and a teacher’s workshop.

Chad Brinston teaches in Point Leamington and was on the tour last summer. He says the school system should be doing more to teach children about the ocean.

“It’s really an odd thing that we’re on an island and Newfoundland is supposed to be creating an emphasis on having people who are knowledgeable about the ocean, but for some reason we don’t actually do it,” he says. “So we have people coming from other places to do things we should be training Newfoundlanders to do, since it’s our province.”

Brinston quoted a Chinese proverb when asked if hands-on learning like eco-tours teaches children more than notes on a whiteboard.

“Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me and I’ll remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.”

“When they’re involved, it’s a lot more relevant,” added Denika Saunders, who was on the same tour. “When they’re doing things that are practical, and they see how it can be applied, it definitely helps them gain that knowledge.”

Negrijn and a business partner formed Oceans Learning Partnership to expand the marine education programs they can provide in the K-12 system, and starting this summer they’ll hold summer camps and workshops in Terra Nova and Holyrood.

The 42-foot, eight-knot MV Coastal Explorer, the vessel Negrijn currently uses in Terra Nova, will move to Holyrood to conduct tours there, and Coastal Connections will get a smaller, faster vessel for Terra Nova. Negrijn says that will allow his business to deliver four tours a day in Terra Nova where last year they could only manage two.

With the expansion into Holyrood, Negrijn says he’s achieving the vision he had when he set out into the ecotourism business.

“I had always had this idea, this concept, of having a number of sites around the province, where tour boats would offer the same kind of program that I was offering to the schools. I think of it as a watershed area, where all the water runs in one river. Well, in this case, if you have a boat in Terra Nova, the schools in that area would travel there. The importance of the experiential, hands-on learning for kids, I think everyone recognizes it, and it’s just invaluable in getting kids excited in ocean science.”

Through ecotourism Negrijn has found a way to make a living doing what he’s passionate about — teaching people about the mysterious ocean environment.

“I see this as the next level,” he says. “What about the whole ocean itself? It’s an incredibly diverse place. What about looking at the whole thing? How do the whales fit in? Where do the icebergs fit in? They’re all part of this wonderful world, the ocean world, and so we’re helping people to see not only on the surface, but through the ROV and the collecting, we’re helping them to see underwater and get an appreciation for the fact that everything is interrelated, including ourselves — especially Newfoundlanders who have been intimately involved in the sea for generations.”