I learned a lot about coastal ecology with my students when we traveled by bus to Dauphin Island and to Jekyll Island for marine science and environmental education programs. For eight years we left the confines of the classroom to spend five hands-on days studying beach erosion, wave movement, currents, and marine life. We learned the names of the strange creatures caught in our seining nets in tidal pools – before we threw them back. A fellow that looked exactly like a baked potato turned out to be a tunicate that molds himself to your hand just as he molds his body in the shape of the sand he washes up on.
In the salt marsh we held snails to our throats and hummed to coax them out of their shells; we watched hundreds of male crabs waving one claw, all at the same time, to attract females - hilarious. We spied on tiny fish hiding in Spartina grass until they're large enough to survive in the sea - a fascinating snapshot of the importance to the food chain of estuaries as nurseries.
In the lab we dissected squid and studied plankton – a life form familiar to middle schoolers who also like to float through the day without expending any effort (and sometimes get eaten alive by predators.) We giggled at the instructor's claim that the barnacle has the largest reproductive organ of any living organism, proportionately speaking. Those grad student teachers knew how to keep the attention of an 8th grade audience.
From Jekyll we took the ferry over to Cumberland Island, a natural environment unspoiled by man – with wild horses and armadillos roaming free and nary a gas station or Wal-Mart in sight. We even watched an overly zealous conservationist lady try to revive a sea turtle by blowing into a tube down its throat – despite the fact that it had been dead long enough to produce an impressive stench. (I think she'd been isolated on the island too long.) At night we learned how city lights can confuse newly hatched turtles as they search for the moon on the water to make their way out to sea. We watched constellations appear, sharply focused in true darkness, the same stars that have helped sailors navigate for centuries.
And we journaled about our experiences and kept notes in workbooks printed for the occasion. We connected with the sea and its inhabitants in a way that stayed with me and, I hope, with my students.
Today I am grieving – for beautiful ocean creatures dying in numbers too large to document, for sea birds cooked alive in heavy coats of oil, for fishermen who will lose their homes and the livelihoods handed down to them by their fathers and grandfathers, for once pristine beaches caked with tar - for the lost beauty of an ecosystem now desecrated beyond belief. And I grieve for the arrogance and ignorance of callous men who've willfully and thoughtlessly defiled our precariously balanced planet and jeopardized the futures of our children and their children – to satisfy their greed.