The science behind the scenery

Posted: Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Melody Adezas wanted something "less touristy" in a tour, so the San Antonio resident on a seven-day cruise with her husband, Dennis, picked Gastineau Guiding's "citizen science adventure" after doing her research.

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Michael Penn/Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/Juneau Empire

The Adezas's were joined by others Monday also interested in getting a little something extra out of their scenic experience.

Lily Garfield said she chose the tour, which incorporates a glacier visit with whale watching, hoping her two children, Terry, 12 and Schuyler, 10, would learn something new while having fun.

Citizen science vacations are new to Juneau but they're not a new concept.

Gastineau Guiding's Liz Stahl, an interpretive guide with the company since 2004, helped create the tour after thinking about what she, an adventurous person who would want to do something more than sit on a bus, would like in a tour.

She explained at the start of Monday's adventure (which did include a ride on a bus) that scientists need help collecting data so they can answer all kinds of questions about the universe.

She talked about the first citizen science project - the annual Christmas Bird Count started by Audubon more than 100 years ago - then handed out clipboards and assignments and the group went to work.

The clients don't know exactly what to expect when they sign up for the tour but seem to feel they got more out of the experience, Stahl said.

"Other tours, they get to listen and look. Here, they get to study it a bit more and up-close," she said.

Stahl's group recorded measurements and observations on four different kinds of plants growing near the Mendenhall Glacier, then headed to Auke Bay for a boat ride to search for whales.

They certainly took obligatory stand-in-front-of-the-glacier pictures and looked for the flukes of diving humpbacks, but the participants also came back to the dock talking about things they didn't see.

"I thought it was neat, learning all that about plankton," Melody Adezas said.

In between whale sightings, they collected sea water samples for the Phytoplankton Monitoring Network, an effort to keep track of "ride tide" blooms throughout the summer and record much more information about the vital ocean food source.

Stahl showed slides of different kinds of microscopic critters and passed around colored charts so they could identify what might be in the samples.

And the information actually --is a two-way street, according to Gary Freitag, marine advisory agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alaska Sea Grant Program, two organizations partnering with the tour company.

It's nearly impossible for scientists to do daily data collection because of the expense, Freitag said.

"What they're putting together here is quite vital," he said. "Of course, it also creates interest in the science among the public, which is a positive thing, too."

This is the second year the company has offered the tours. If they catch on, it could become a permanent fixture and provide long-term information to the scientific world.

Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.



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