the ages, wetlands have been synonymous with wastelands. Thought to be
sources of disease, unpleasant odours, flies, and mosquitoes, wetlands
were considered mysterious places where strange lights glowed at
night, people and animals were lost to never be seen again, and
strange and mysterious vapours emerged.
As a result of their maligned
reputation and society's lack of understanding about their true value,
wetlands were ditched, drained, dyked, and filled-in. This enabled the
rich soil they harboured and their flat, treeless expanse to be
utilized for something profitable, such as new farmland, a dump for
household and industrial waste, or a site for house or industrial
plant construction. In fact, this effort to destroy wetlands has been
very successful. Approximately 65% of coastal wetlands and 50% of
fresh water wetlands in Atlantic Canada have been destroyed or
altered, and the destruction continues.
Young visitors enjoy touch boxes at TWC.
(Photo: Nancy MacKinnon)
This rampant wetland destruction, and
the belief that education would end this travesty, led to the
partnership between Environment Canada-Canadian Wildlife Service,
Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Town of Sackville, School District 2, and
Tantramar Regional High School that created the Tantramar Wetlands
Centre (TWC). TWC has a mandate to clear up damaging misconceptions
about wetlands and to reveal to visiting students the importance of
wetland conservation through experiential wetland education programs.
As our knowledge and understanding of
ecological processes have increased, the true value of wetlands has
emerged. In reality, wetlands are the "kidneys" of the
earth. They perform a myriad of cleansing functions on the planet's
water. Wetlands filter and strain debris, remove and neutralize
toxins, prevent floods, purify drinking water, are nurseries for young
animals, are home to endangered species, provide resting and refueling
stations for migrating birds, prevent erosion by slowing water flow,
and much more. They are second only to tropical rain forests in the
great variety of life they support. They are also great places to
visit, in which to canoe, take photographs, and learn about nature.
They also support traditional activities such as hunting, fishing, and
The very nature of wetlands lends
themselves to being an exceptional educational tool. Wetlands are
found in most communities. According to Statistics Canada, 14% of
Canada's total land mass is wetland and 25% of the earth's wetlands
are in Canada. By that statistic alone, most schools should be located
within close proximity of a wetland, be it a pond, marsh, fen, bog, or
swamp. The abundance and diversity of wetlands makes them one of the
most easily accessible ecosystems for study.
A class visits TWC.
(Photo: Nancy MacKinnon)
Wetlands are usually shallow. They are
a transition between land and water and the area along the shoreline
makes an excellent outdoor classroom. During the spring, summer, and
fall, one can examine wetlands with simple equipment such as rubber
boots for wading and aquarium dip nets and plastic margarine or yogurt
containers for collecting invertebrates, stickleback fish, and plants
that thrive in the rich, warm water along the shore. The daily
activities of larger animals such as a diversity of waterfowl,
shorebirds, and muskrats can be viewed with binoculars by a silent
Wetlands are the second most biodiverse
ecosystem on the planet. Every child will have success at finding
living organisms in a wetland because life abounds in these fragile
ecosystems. From baby dragonflies or nymphs to leeches to caddisfly
larvae in their houses of twigs, pebbles, and seeds, the variety of
animal life found captures the attention of young and old alike. Their
imaginations are caught by the stories about these critters'
adaptations for survival in a watery world.
Wetland plants have unique adaptations
not found in upland plants. Carnivorous plants are adapted to capture
and digest insects and other organisms for nutrition. A hand lens will
reveal the floating insects in a pitcher plant's reservoir of
rainwater and digestive juices, the sticky drops on a sundew for
capturing insects, and the inward opening of the trap door on a
bladderwort's bladder. Floating mats of cattails have spongy stems and
leaves with air spaces that keep the plant aerated. Horsetails are the
tiny remnants of trees of the ancient coal forests whose ancestors
reveal their true size in calamites fossils.
Looking for critters at TWC.
(Photo: Nancy MacKinnon)
Freshwater wetlands have still waters
or gentle currents that make them ideal for wading or exploring by
Wetlands are homes to species at risk
as listed by The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in
Canada. These species are often endangered because their habitat is
being destroyed or altered in such a way by human activity that they
can no longer live there. Least Bittern and American Eel are two such
species often seen in or near our New Brunswick wetlands.
Located on the edge of the provincially
significant and world famous Tantramar Marshes, the Tantramar Wetlands
Centre is an award winning Centre of Excellence in Wetland Education
that presents wetland education programming to more than 4200 visitors
annually. Nothing beats the experiential approach to outdoor education
- especially when it comes to wetland education - and this is the
approach employed by the Tantramar Wetlands Centre. From
macroinvertebrate sampling, counting muskrat houses, collecting water
samples, performing water chemistry tests, banding waterfowl,
snowshoeing, or looking for animal sign on a frozen marsh to
conducting breeding bird and brood surveys, visitors have the
opportunity to learn by doing and participate in authentic activities
that scientists would employ to monitor and collect data when
determining the health of a wetland.
Making bird boxes at TWC.
(Photo: Nancy MacKinnon)
The jewel of the Tantramar Wetlands
Centre is the 15 hectare freshwater marsh, reclaimed from an abandoned
hayfield, with fully accessible trails around and through the
diversity of habitat. Just steps away, and housed within Tantramar
Regional High School, is the "Wetlab" which comprises a
fully wired theatre that seats 35, a classroom/conference room and a
laboratory that allows components of the wetland to be brought inside
for closer examination.
The Tantramar Wetlands Centre is
staffed by a full-time wildlife biologist, a director, and student
volunteers from TRHS who are called the "Wetheads". These
enthusiastic program presenters are the key behind the success of the
Tantramar Wetlands Centre. The "kids teaching kids"
philosophy works on all levels. Adults are impressed by the knowledge
and enthusiasm of the youth. Younger students are in awe because high
school students are so cool and thus whatever they say is absorbed and
As soon as students arrive at TWC,
their senses are fully engaged with the sights, sounds, smells, and
textures of a freshwater marsh. The rubber-boots, hands-on, innovative
education programs they participate in during their visits capture
their imaginations and hearts so that they leave with lasting,
positive impressions concerning wetlands that we are already seeing
pay dividends in wetland conservation.
For information on our programs, visit
or email us.