Science Education at Sea – Celebrating 40 Years

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 “My favorite memory working for Captain Jim on a SEAS Trip is the first time observing a sea turtle in the wild, specifically a Leatherback. Every day on the water is different. It is an excellent opportunity that I love!”

– Kaitlin Gannon, Outreach Coordinator at The Wetlands Institute

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Kaitlin Gannon and Captain Jim

 The Science Education at Sea (SEAS) program introduces 4th-12th grade students to a variety of marine life and different educational activities while on a 3hr trip with the 105ft Atlantic Star or Starlight. This is a partnership program between JJCBoats, Inc. and the Wetlands Institute.

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Kaitlin Gannon has been the Outreach Coordinator for off site programs with the Wetlands Institute for the past six years, focusing on the SEAS program.  She graduated from the University of Findlay in Ohio, originally studying pre-Veterinary Science, but quickly switching over to study Biology after discovering more of her passions. Upon graduating, Gannon found herself as a naturalist for one full season on the American Star at the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. Through her naturalist position at the whale watch, Kaitlin was first introduced to the SEAS trips with Travis Davis, and eventually took over the program when she became employed by the Wetlands Institute. 

On a typical SEAS trip, students begin their journey with their experienced SEAS instructors learning about the salt marsh and estuary systems in the back bays of Wildwood, as the Atlantic Star or Starlight makes its way out into the open waters. The importance of these areas are discussed in detail as environmental nurseries and coastal protection areas. Estuaries in particular can be thought of as buffer zones to Wildwood and Cape May. In addition to their environmental importance, they can help absorb excess water due to storms to reduce flooding in these areas.

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Ospreys are seen along the channel markers and man-made Osprey perches within the salt marsh and estuary areas.

After exiting the Cape May inlet, the Captain onboard shares the different marine mammal watch techniques for spotting Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins.  Cape May and Wildwood, New Jersey have a residential population of about 2,000-3,000 dolphins that return to this area for feeding, mating and giving birth to their calves. They are often found throughout the entire Wildwood and Cape May beach front.  Students scan the horizon for dorsal fins, blow spouts and splashes!

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A group of dolphins traveling together is called a pod. A pod can consist of 15, 30 or even 50 individual dolphins!

The Starlight Fleet is a member of Whale Sense, a voluntary organization that trains all captains and naturalists proper and respectful whale and dolphin watching techniques.  Whale Sense is a partnership program between the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, NOAA Fisheries Services and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation. The dolphins have an excellent eyesight and sense of hearing, they are always aware of the exact location of our vessel. With the second largest brain to body size ratio, second largest to humans, these dolphins love to people watch just as much as the students love to dolphin watch!

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The dolphins will commonly swim underneath the boat and resurface on the other side!

Passengers may even encounter a baleen whale on the SEAS trips! Wildwood and Cape May are also important feeding locations for the Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, North Atlantic Right Whale and the Minke Whale. These whales migrate through the area through out the season to feed as much as they possibly can before reaching their mating grounds or birthing grounds.

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Students on the 05/19/2016 SEAS trips witnessed a large Humpback Whale actively feeding less than a mile from the Cape May beach front!

After the students experience these marine mammals in their natural habitat, they have a Horseshoe Crab, hands-on learning presentation by SEAS instructors. The students can touch a live horseshoe crab while learning the different anatomies of a male and female, their importance to our migratory shorebirds and even take a close up look at their blue blood! Horseshoe Crabs come ashore along the Delaware Bay to spawn and lay their eggs through out the spring and early summer. The Horseshoe Crabs that come ashore to spawn are at least ten years old and have completed the molting process. They can also be thought of as living fossils because they are older than some of the dinosaurs that used to walk planet Earth!

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Eunice Hudzik, a SEAS instructor, shows her students the blue blood of a Horseshoe Crab that can be used to detect different harmful toxins.

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Kaitlin Gannon explains the importance of the Horseshoe Crab tail and the proper way to hold one without causing any harm.

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Students learn a new appreciation for the species as they may even kiss it for good luck!

Once the Atlantic Star reaches the Delaware Bay, a plankton net and fish trawl net are deployed by instructors and students. Lucky volunteers help deploy and retract each net separately, collecting live micro and macro specimens including plankton, crustaceans, gastropods and fish, to be used in the next stations.

Plankton is defined as any organism that can not freely swim through the water column. They will float or drift along with the tides and currents. Plankton are food for larger organisms, produce atmospheric oxygen for mammals to breathe and are also the start to the food chain!

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For many students, this will be their first time learning about plankton. Kaitlin explains the different organisms that begin their life as tiny plankton and the importance to our ocean environments!

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IMG_3743 A student helps retrieve the plankton net over the side of the boat. The plankton sample is collected in the white jar at the bottom of the net.

With the collected plankton specimen, students engage in the next activity with their smartphones! After examining different planktonic species together as a whole with a microscope and HD TV screen, students receive their own identification sheet copies to use with their smartphone microscopes. A flashlight is used as a light source as the collected plankton sample is placed underneath the circle lens. The students put their smart phones in camera mode and align it with the circle lens. With this magnified view, students can take their own photos or videos of the plankton sample.

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Students place their own plankton sample on the smart phone microscope device.

The students also learn just how easy it is to create their very own plankton net from old stockings and an empty jar of peanut butter!

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Students may now spread their new knowledge and appreciation of plankton using their smart phones!

 In addition to a plankton net, the students will also help deploy and retrieve a trawl net to collect some larger marine organisms. While a few students help deploy the net, everyone on board must help retrieve the net!

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Students work together to pull the net in and hand it off to mates onboard the vessel.

Once the net is retrieved, the specimens are organized for the next two stations, invertebrates and vertebrates. The students help divide the species while learning facts about each individual creature. Fish, bivalves, algae, horseshoe crabs, snails and even dogfish can all be caught with the trawl net!

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The organisms are collected and sorted by the students.

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Very large or small Horseshoe Crabs less than ten years old may also be caught in the trawl net.

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A Smooth Dogfish is always an exciting catch for everyone!

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Mike Collins, a SEAS instructor, demonstrates how a Whelk may squirt water if grabbed by a predator.

The unique partnership between JJC Boats, Inc and the Wetlands Institute provides a wide range of students from all areas to experience marine science and education aboard a large 105ft vessel the Atlantic Star or the Starlight. Students will gain knowledge in marine biology and environmental science from experienced SEAS instructors in the field while completing hands-on learning activities and collections. All SEAS programs are fit to New Jersey Academic Standards and the North American Association for Environmental Education K-12 Guidelines for Learning.

Is your school or organization interested in joining a SEAS expedition? Email Kaitlin Gannon at kgannon@wetlandsinstitute.org for more information.

-Melissa Laurino, Naturalist at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center

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