Of the things found on a low tide morning in June, perhaps the most exciting was the two-foot-long sea cucumber.
It looked like a deflated balloon and felt like wet leather. The skin of the creature was dotted with knobby protrusions and the head was hard to discern from the “other” end.
Yet its discovery on a sandy beach near Auke Bay became a teaching point for Sun to Sea Science Camp Instructor Bonita Nelson. She called to the students and explained why it was rare to find such a large specimen on the beach.
Besides the fact there wasn’t likely much food, it’s just too big to be here, she said. With that, she released the creature into deeper water.
But sea cucumbers were not all that was found this day. It was only 9 a.m. and participants in this year’s camp, organized by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Juneau Economic Development Council, were on the hunt for sea stars, clams and other marine critters. The sea stars were headed to the dissection table and the clams were gathered to be tested for the toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning.
The middle school-aged students were walking in the shoes of NOAA scientists, so to speak. And it seemed like they were having fun doing it.
Cale Jenkins, 13, was in his second year doing the camp.
“I really liked it last year ... all the fishing and digging for clams ... and the ROV (remote operated vehicle) especially. It’s a really fun way to learn.”
Jenkins was talking about the planned boat trip where students get to “pilot” an underwater ROV as part of the camp.
Jenae Kesey, 13, was also looking forward to running the ROV. Like Jenkins, she was back at the camp for a second time.
“My favorite thing is going on the boat, and driving the ROV under water,” she said. “I want to be a marine biologist when I get older.”
For youth like Kesey and Jenkins, the Sun to Sea Science Camp offers a glimpse into what such a career might be like.
“(The) Sun to Sea Science Camp offers students the chance to explore the world of wind, weather, waves and more through hands-on learning techniques.” Tom Rutecki, a Marine Fisheries Research Biologist with NOAA, said. “We want to show kids what NOAA is all about and how NOAA science affects their lives, whether through protecting the coastal zones and marine life, providing daily weather forecasts, or managing the local fisheries. They’ll also see that scientists are ‘real’ people, and that science can be fun and exciting.”
The camp has run since 2009 and, while the schedule changes every year, this year’s activities included things such as listening to whale vocalizations, monitoring currents, weather and learning first-hand how the ocean and the atmosphere drive one another.
Those relationships fascinated one student so much, she has kept coming back for more.
Serena Partlow, 15, has been volunteering for youth camps for a few years now. She said she enjoys teaching, especially younger kids and that she fell in love with the Sun to Sea Science Camp when she first attended as a participant. Now, she has returned to the camp as a volunteer, because she’s too old to participate.
“I love doing it,” she said. “I’m not too interested in becoming a scientist later in life, but I still love science.”
Partlow said the ocean and its inhabitants are not terribly new to many Juneau youth, who likely learn much about marine life from family and in school. But she said the camp takes things an important step further.
“Kids learn in school, and they see and they learn from their families, that this stuff (clams, sea stars, etc.) exists out here, but they don’t really put it together,” she said. “They see them as separate things instead of as a whole, which is marine biology. I think here, they can take the different facts — like what red tide is, how to beach seine, and how to dissect a sea star — and put it all together into one big picture.”
“I just feel really lucky to live here,” Partlow said.