|Playground At Sea
By: ALLISON L BRUCE Of
The Post and Courier Staff
Originally Published on: 9/04/01
Page: C 1
For a group of marine science students whose exposure to the ocean was
limited to swimming at the beach and recreational boating, boarding
the Ferrel was a watershed event. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration vessel is a scientific playground. Winches and pulleys
drop sediment grabbers to the ocean floor, and instruments give a quick
read of the water's depth, temperature and salinity. Inside, computers
process data. Along the wall, microscopes wait to reveal what lies in
the latest sediment or plankton sample. Last week, students from Wando
High School had a chance to don life jackets and hard hats and get their
hands dirty.The students were the first group of high schoolers to go
on a research cruise aboard the Ferrel, whose home port is Charleston.
Another group of Wando students will go out in October.
College of Charleston Associate Professor Leslie Sautter hopes this
is only the beginning. The trip for Wando's marine science students
marks the first "At Sea!" trip, complete with a precruise
meeting and postcruise data compilation and reporting. She wants the
program to grow to include other high schools and other ships. At Sea!
is run out of Project Oceanica with support from the S.C. Sea Grant
Consortium and the NOAA National Ocean Services.
OUT TO SEA
The group of 15 students and two teachers arrived early in the morning
to board the Ferrel. The students weren't sure just what to expect even
though they had a daylong training seminar the weekend before.
They started with a quick introduction from Sautter and then broke up
into three groups. The boat would stop at three locations. At each stop,
students would be responsible for a different test or measurement. Also
at each station, they would drop off a fish trap that they would pull
up on the way back.
First, the Ferrel motored up the Cooper River into brackish water. As
the sediment grabber descended to the bottom at that stop, students
waited to see what they would collect. Slowly, the Pac-Man-like jaws
entered the water. Once it hit bottom, the students began to pull it
up. They turned it over and opened it - only to find it was empty. Again
they lowered the contraption; again it came up empty. Two other students
took a turn at the pulley. When the grabber made contact with the bottom,
they gave it a quick tug upward, closing the metal jaws. This time it
came up full of sediment. The students sifted and bagged the sediment
and then recorded information for a database that will be used by future
At Sea! groups. After spending some time upriver, the Ferrel turned
toward Charleston Harbor.
Here, some students lowered a metal frame around canisters and tubing
- the conductivity, temperature and depth (CTD) meter - to the bottom.
As it descended and rose again, the apparatus pumped water through its
system and measured the salinity, temperature and depth. The students
then lifted the device from the water and attached it to a computer
system that graphs all three measurements. These would be used later
in the database to compare with the plankton levels other students collected
at that site or the sediment another group found at the bottom.
Sautter said the students will be able to see how things change in different
environments - how the sediment samples, salinity and plankton they
collected varied by location. That, she said, leads them to thinking
about the biological, physical, chemical and geological factors of each
site. Those factors will become even clearer once the information is
entered into the database the students are creating. Future At Sea!
cruises will stop at the same sites and build on the database to track
how the sites change.
"The most important thing they learn is this is how science works,"
The third stop was in open water. The waves rocked the flat-bottomed
vessel, and the students staggered along the decks. As clear and calm
as the day was, a few fought down mild seasickness. Students towing
a large net alongside the boat not only caught the plankton they were
aiming for, but also brought up two jellyfish and a small crab. After
the creatures were freed, the water was strained into a smaller vial
and taken inside to view and place in a sample bag - a plastic baggie
with the vital information identifying the sample written on it in permanent
marker. Beneath the microscope, small translucent creatures darted and
shuffled along under the light. The students took the samples back to
class to look at them more closely once they start compiling their data.
Several students, though they may not go into marine science, found
that the experience would help them in class. "It gives me a better
view of what I'm studying," said Brad Richardson, who spent the
day videotaping his fellow students for the school's television station
and for a future Web site. "You can look at something on paper
all day, but if you go out and look at it in real life, you have a lot
Richardson said he hopes the program continues to grow so that other
students get a chance to go out on research vessels. Sarah Morgan agreed
that having hands-on experience - a chance to pull up sediment from
the bottom of the harbor and sift through it - made the trip worthwhile.
"You get to see how they find plankton - how they actually do the
stuff they do," she said. "You understand it better by doing
That's what biology teacher Selina Caparas wanted when she first proposed
a trip for students. Caparas took a coastal marine science class from
Sautter and wanted to recreate the cruise for a group of students.
"I really like for students to do hands-on as much as possible.
It's a great way to apply what they're doing in the classroom,"
she said. Caparas worked with Sautter to set up the cruise aboard the
while she was still a teacher at North Charleston High School. When
Caparas transferred to Wando, the program moved with her. She hopes
it will grow to include other high schools and other students. For this
year's group, the cruise gave the students something they can refer
back to during the school year, she said.
"Everything they're learning in marine science from here on out
they can apply to this trip," she said.
As the boat returned along its course, the final test involved pulling
up the fish traps.
The first trap to come up had stayed in the water the shortest amount
of time. As the students and staff dragged it aboard the boat, nothing
moved. The only fish in the trap were the same dead ones that went in
as bait. A small spider crab was the only addition. The next trap held
more promise. Dropped in the harbor, it had been in longer and might
have attracted some fish. The boat circled the buoy and orange flag,
closing in on the trap. As the buoy came up alongside the boat, however,
the line connecting the buoy to the trap wrapped around the Ferrel's
rudder. Two crewmen donned masks, flippers and tanks and strapped knives
to their calves. After determining what had gone wrong, they detached
the buoy and attached the trap line to another rope to pull it up. Slowly,
the trap rose out of the water.
As they dragged it onto the deck, both students and teachers alike looked
at the dead fish inside. They had lifted another empty trap. Then, a
flutter of movement. A single fish struggled in the trap. Students raised
their hands and shouted and then gathered around. After an impromptu
lesson, the fish went back overboard. The success after a long wait
on the second trap raised hopes for the final trap. Though the crew
had trouble snagging the trap, it was nothing like the adventure at
the previous stop. As the trap came up, however, it was empty. A single
large shrimp had made its way into the trap and soon found its way back
overboard, as well.
BACK TO SHORE
By the end of the daylong trip, students were finding cool spots inside
the ship and in the shade to rest their eyes. A few students made their
way to the bridge where they monitored the progress of the boat and
even had a chance to handle some of the controls.
Though only for a day, the trip gave them a glimpse of an oceanographic
research cruise, which can last for weeks or even months. They had a
chance to do research, grab samples and create data charts that they
expanded on during the following week. Eventually, students will create
an oral presentation, a poster of their research, and material for a
"They're starting to find out what they are learning in school
does make a difference and they can put it to practical use," said
Rear Adm. Evelyn Fields, director of NOAA Corps and the Office of Marine
and Aviation Operations. "It's making things more real to them
and keeping them interested."
Fields said NOAA is always looking for activities to do with students.
The cruise is a good opportunity to help the youths understand the coastal
environment and perhaps cultivate an interest that could lead to careers.
For at least some of the students, it was just the kind of exposure
they needed to point them in that direction. "I now know more about
what marine scientists and marine biologists do," said senior Alex
Clause. She wanted to go on the cruise to see if she really wants to
pursue marine science as a career. "I had so much fun. I could
see myself doing something like this."
Allison Bruce covers the Charleston County School District. Contact
her at email@example.com or 937-5546.