Biology at its best

Also published in the Athenaeum, issue 75.1, September 11, 2012

Our first glimpse of Bon Portage Island was that of a rocky shore and the vague outline of jagged trees, emerging from the thick fog that hung like a blanket over Shag Harbour. The boat pulled up beside the wharf and we unloaded our belongings, set foot on the small piece of land that would be our home for the next two weeks. Eight students, one island and nothing but the vastness of the ocean beyond.

Shoreline off Bon Portage Island

One of the first things on our agenda was exploring. Our cabin was near the wharf, a 15-minute walk from the south end of the island, where the lighthouse, cookhouse and lab classroom were located. The shoreline was covered in lobster traps, pieces of driftwood, bones and skulls, an old boiler from a shipwreck, pieces of toys, gloves, clothing… shards of everyday life brought over from the mainland. Gulls circled overhead, endlessly screaming, wailing. A seal appeared amongst the restless waves, peering at us curiously before diving under again. The trees facing the open ocean were stunted, twisted by the wind and the salt spray. They grew gradually taller the further inland we walked, but we never got away from the sound of the waves crashing against the shore, a constant reminder that the ocean surrounded us from all sides. At the north tip, the forest gave way to a fen, offering a view across to the other side of the island and sometimes of the mainland.

Sandpipers & company

This is Bon Portage Island, located off the south shore of Nova Scotia. Once the residence of Evelyn and Morrill Richardson, who were lighthouse keepers for 35 years, the island now belongs to Acadia University. It is maintained by the Biology Department, which offers a natural history field course for university students, which I and seven other students had the chance to experience this year. During our two-week stay on Bon Portage, we learnt about Ichtyology (fishes) with Dr. Katherine Jones from Cape Breton University, Entomology with Dr Kirk Hillier (Acadia), Intertidal Zones with Dr Trevor Avery (Acadia), and with adventurer-in-chief Dr Dave Shutler, we explored Botany (Plants) and Ornithology (Birds). What made this course different from the others, along with the spectacular setting, was the chance to be fully immersed in a different environment.

Wave off BP

On Bon Portage, the animals outnumber the humans, who tread carefully amongst Storm-Petrel Burrows and gull colonies. The mainland is sometimes just a glimpse in the distance, and hardly seems real. The only source of power is the generator on the south end of the island, but reading by flashlight and having few opportunities to shower becomes normal.

As a student, spending time on BP was a tremendous opportunity to learn first-hand about the organisms who call this island home. Where else would you get to “grub” petrel chicks from their burrows and listen to their small hearts beating like drums, meet a Northern Gannet face-to-face, get a close look at the butterflies feeding on the thistles that cover the island, watch a deer bound across the meadow or observe the gliding grace of a harrier on the hunt for mice or meadow voles? This, in my opinion, is biology at its best.


Leach’s Storm-Petrel

The BP field course runs during the last 2 weeks of August. For more information, visit the website 





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