Exploring the Ria Formosa Natural ParkOn the 8th of May 2009, Years 5 and 6 from the English Studies section of the Colégio Internaçional de Vilamoura engaged in learning activities with biologists, Sonia Manso and Rita Ascenso of Natura Algarve and teachers: Carla Robalo, Carla Guerreiro and myself.

On the 8th of May 2009, Years 5 and 6 from the English Studies section of the Colégio Internaçional de Vilamoura engaged in learning activities with biologists, Sonia Manso and Rita Ascenso of Natura Algarve and teachers: Carla Robalo, Carla Guerreiro and myself.

Natura is a company which not only promotes Portugal for the ecotourist but also, importantly, is involved in education regarding the protection and sustainability of our natural resources.

After arriving in Olhão, we explored the fish market with Sonia and looked at the varieties of fish and shellfish caught by the local fishermen. The students were fascinated with the squid, octopus, rays, soles, live squirming eels and dog sharks but the star, propped alongside the “allmouth” monkfish, was the skinned head of what appeared to be an anglerfish (a bottom dwelling inhabitant of the Atlantic) with its large jaw wedged open and its lure secured on top for effect.

Outside the market, Rita delved into the past with a fascinating history of the city of Olhão. The city of Olhão de Restauração, as it should be called, received its status in 1808 after 17 brave local fishermen succeeded in a perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean to inform their exiled king that invading French armies had been defeated. A replica of this brightly painted 20m wooden boat, the Bom Sucesso”, is tethered to the quay outside the market. We also noticed the typical Moorish architecture in this location.

Soon, the chugging ferry boat carried us, the island inhabitants, supplies, tourists and dogs across the water from Olhão, past the clam diggers and fish farms, to Ilha do Culatra (actually in the municipality of Faro).

Many of the students were amazed to discover that these large islands are mere sand bars and although they don’t have hotels, golf courses, theme parks and cars (as some students expected), they “entertain” with their silence and natural beauty.  Along the piers, the students gazed into the water below; fascinated with the large starfish, pipefish, urchins, sea cucumbers, algae eating fish, crabs and shoals of hatchlings in this vital breeding ground. Amid such natural wonders, we also witnessed how litter (mainly washed in from the incoming tides from other areas), leaking gasoline from local boat motors and broken beer bottles have a detrimental effect on this fragile ecosystem and are also aesthetically unpleasing. The students inspected the assortment of traditional and modern fishermen’s tools – mounds of fine nylon nets, floats, ropes, bouys, flags, baskets, clay pots for luring octopi, basket traps and coiled ropes alongside their boats. Enormous rusty tuna fishing anchors along the paths gave a glimpse into this region’s ghostly tuna-fishing past.

Students were given clipboards and worksheets and they set about collecting data (for future graphic representation and interpretation in the classroom) on the measurements of shells, creatures and plants found along this beach and later along the shore formed with the sea.  Large unbroken shells of different types were admired and treasured.

Once our bags were lightened (after our picnic lunch) and kindly stored in a local café, we set off along the wooden walkway to a cold, rough sea; ice-creams in hand. Along the way, it was fascinating to watch the water creeping along through the dunes from both the sea and estuary as the tide rose on both sides. The spread of flora, necessary to stabilise these dunes, was estimated by the students to be between 70 and 80%. We became aware of how the common practice of walking across dunes and picking flowers and leaves, while at the beach, should be avoided at all costs in any coastal location.

The students, in their groups, examined the specific adaptations of different plants and grasses to this harsh environment .

The journey to the mainland was longer as the ferryboat had to stop at the village of Farol, at the other end of this 7km long island, on its circuit back. Again we gazed from the boat down through the crystal water at the fishes and creatures around the pier at Farol before floating on the mirror surface of the high tide back to the bustle of Olhão. Group photos were taken before boarding the bus back to school with Senior Antonio.

We would like to thank Sonia and Rita for not only sharing a wealth of knowledge with us but also for their attention to our safety and, most of all, for their PATIENCE with such a large, lively group. We all learnt something new and returned to the mainland as more conscious and caring citizens of this planet which we share with so many other plants and creatures. We are looking forward to exploring other areas of the Ria Formosa Natural Park with Natura soon.

Ilha da Culatra

Olhão fish market Susan Fantasia

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