Behind the scenes of our exhibits lies the Two Oceans Aquarium Environmental Education Centre - an area that few people over the age of 18 ever visit! The purpose of this collection of classrooms is simple - to instil an appreciation and understanding of the ocean in Cape Town's young hearts and minds.

“I was reading an interview with Sir David Attenborough recently and they asked him about when he became fascinated by the natural environment. He turned around and said: 'It's not a case of when I became fascinated, it's more when did everybody else lose their fascination?'

Children are fascinated and somewhere along the line they lose it. We've got to get them to keep that fascination.”
– Xavier Zylstra

Xavier, or Mr Zee, believes in making lessons engaging and memorable - not just leaving the children with facts, but leaving them empowered to change the world for the better.

We chatted to Two Oceans Aquarium Deputy Head of Education Xavier Zylstra, or Mr Zee as the kids prefer to call him, about the passion and purpose that drives him to do what he does.

Mr Zee: I'm fascinated by the natural world, particularly plants and animals, but also the physical geography - trying to understand how the planet got put together, or put itself together. And when it comes to living things, the way that they are adapted to their particular environment and the really, really complex adaptations that you start seeing when you look closer.

I think that fascination, that passion for knowledge, has also made me want to share all those amazing and exciting things that I've picked up. It's not just the run of the mill stuff, it's the cool facts and the interesting adaptations.

And, tied in with that, I think a passion for the natural world also gives me a concern that things are clearly going wrong - I've seen that in my own lifetime. So, I've tied that into my love of teaching, to add that extra dimension on where it's not only, "Here's some information for you," but "You need to take this information and respond to it," and, where things have gone wrong, "We're in a position to consider that and try to make it better.” This, I think, has become more important since I moved from teaching in a classroom in a formal school environment to teaching at the Aquarium.

The worst thing that could happen is giving kids too much information about what's gone wrong and that they then withdraw completely and say, "I can't actually deal with this, so I'm not even going to try." I've realised that it is absolutely critical to share really cool stuff, and, whenever saying that we've gone wrong, to try and provide a lot of information about what we can do to make it better and what people are already doing to try to reverse the adverse effects that humans have had on the environment.

It's not always about humans being deliberately irresponsible; I think that most people simply aren't aware of the repercussions of what they take as everyday technology - and that's where the teaching comes in - it's to be able to show kids that they must be aware that if they are using technology in this way, to be aware of what is happening behind the scenes and precautions that they need to take. For example, plastic… Plastic's great, but it also has to be utilised far more responsibly in order to reverse the hugely negative global impact that it has now.

The Aquarium's classrooms are busy places - we asked Xavier if he had any favourite lessons that he loved to share.

Mr Zee: Yes, without a doubt any lesson that involves live animals in the classroom. It grabs the attention of the kids, they can see that there's movement on the table. They're excited by the fact that they've got something that's alive - some of them are quite daunted by it.

It makes it that much easier to get them to concentrate on what I'm saying, because I can refer to the live animal and at some stage I can get them to pass its container around the table and ask them to feel what the animal's skin feels like or to take a closer look at how it is holding onto the sides of its water bowl. This leads to inductive learning because I can ask them to feel something or look for something and then I can ask them: "So why do you think that's like that?" I'm getting them to observe and then come up with a rational explanation for what they're observing. And then I tie that in with extra information about it and cool facts and, "Did you know that this animal can also do this?" and so on.

Whether in our classroom or on the road with our outreach teams, putting children in touch with live animals is the best way to leave a lasting connection between them and the ocean.

I love working with sharks in particular. From the beginning; when I was given the first shark eggs and I got them to hatch and realized, "Wow! Here's something cool! We can put little live sharks on the table in front of the kids." And, if there are few enough kids, then we can get them to gently stroke the shark. That whole shark encounter really makes it so you can see their minds turning around and them realising, "Wow, these are actually cool animals."

Then you add in some information about how humans are really having a negative impact on shark populations, and it stays with them. The children arrive here talking about Jaws and blood and teeth and all the misconceptions that people have about sharks, but they walk out with this attitude of "I'm going to tell Mom and Dad that I touched a shark today… and it didn't bite my hand off!" That's cool stuff!

After hatching at the Aquarium, this little leopard catshark will spend some time as an animal ambassador in our Environmental Education Centre until it is eventually released into the wild.

Thanks for sharing your passion and insight Xavier!

Ocean education for your kids

There are many ways your children can get involved in environmental education opportunities at the Aquarium. Here are a few of the most popular options:

If you would like to make a booking for your class, get involved in one of the above courses or are an adult looking for training opportunities or to take part in our job shadowing programme, please visit our Environmental Education Centre portal for more information and the relevant contact details.

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