Monday, October 30, 2017

Oh, See Sealia - Tides

By Eric Pfirrmann, fleet captain and education specialist

What does a hands-on education program do when winter rolls around and the environment gets cold? We go outside, of course!

Nature doesn’t take the winter off, so neither do we. Many plants are dormant. Many animals migrate south for warmer climes. By late fall, our trawls come up cold and empty. Salinity and oxygen levels in the water become less stratified. Plankton becomes scarce. But luckily for us, while some animals migrate out of our area in the winter, others migrate in. Schools of herring travel down from Maine and the Canadian coast to make the Bay and Rhode Island Sound their winter home. Harbor seals follow this plentiful food source and have become a prime focus of our outdoor winter education program.

Save The Bay’s education arm, also known as Explore The Bay, began developing our seal program 15 years ago, soon after a gift from the Alletta Morris McBean Charitable Trust gave us our first education vessel, the M/V Alletta Morris. With Alletta, we had a way to show our students real seals in their natural habitat, without having to trudge a mile through the snow. Departing from Newport, we can easily reach the seals and return to the dock in an hour, keeping our students warm in all but the coldest conditions. We call it our Seal Switch program.

Top right: Save The Bay’s Celina Segala introduces our life-sized 
seal model, Sealia. Above: Sixth-and seventh-graders from The Rectory School 
in Pomfret, Connecticut learn about harbor seals from Save The Bay’s 
education team during a visit in March. 
From the start, we paired our school seal watch trip with our “Sealia” outreach program. Sealia is our life-sized, anatomically-correct seal model, complete with a zipper for exploring her internal anatomy. Together, our educators and students investigate the adaptations that harbor seals use in order to survive and thrive in cold water. With pelts on loan from the National Marine Fisheries Service, students can see and touch actual seal fur, discovering what it means to have fur so dense it is waterproof. Using everyday objects to mimic seal adaptations, such as swim fins for flippers, sweaters for blubber, ponchos for waterproof fur and goggles for the mucus layer that allows seals to see clearly underwater, students get to “dress like a seal” to learn both the similarities and the differences between humans and seals.

“Sealia” has always been a staple of our in-school outreach programs,

but combining the in-classroom learning with an on-the-water seal watch takes it to an entirely different level. Just a short ride out from our dock in Newport is one of Narragansett Bay’s best seal haul-out sites. There, we can reliably find seals throughout the seal season from November to April, but it is not a zoo. Students see seals resting on rocks. They see them bottling or swimming in the water. They count the seals as part of our monitoring program. This is a brand new experience for almost all of them, discovering a new animal practically in their backyard.
Local elementary school students explore Narragansett Bay and
look for harbor seals aboard Save The Bay’s M/V
Elizabeth Morris.
A prime goal of environmental education is to link classroom learning to the real world. Our seal program does that in just two hours. Students learn about camouflage, then see it in action. They learn about the insulating properties of blubber, then experience it in person with a “blubber glove” and a bucket of cold Bay water. They feel the cold air and water, yet they see another mammal living and thriving in it thanks to adaptations we humans lack. Direct classroom-to-real-world connections.

But beyond great teaching methodology, the seal program is just full of wonder. No one can forget the first time they see a seal. Big, cute, sometimes funny, seals spark something in all of us. For our students, they make a real connection with the Bay. And for us educators, the joy and excitement our students feel is infectious.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

A Day With The Dogfish Shark

By Phoebe Finn, communications intern

I spent a lot of time with the sharks during my day of volunteering at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium. For some reason, I was drawn to them—how they swam so effortlessly, the way other people approached their tank and they fact that they came right out of Narragansett Bay.

“Do you want to see some sharks?” I would ask the little kids as they walked into the back room of the aquarium. Most of them would freak out, either with excitement or nervousness. I enjoyed watching their faces shift as they ascended the wooden steps and peered into the tank of Smooth and Chain Dogfish sharks.

The Chain dogfish are nocturnal, so they slept in a group on the floor of the tank as the one Smooth Dogfish swam laps above them. Her constant circles around the top of the four-foot circular tank seemed effortless. She would occasionally poke her nose out of the water, and after a few minutes of shark tank duty, I realized that she was saying “hi” to me.

She seemed to like me, and I definitely liked her. I loved being able to teach other curious people about the sharks, and I could even throw in some shark-petting, which really impressed people. I told them that the one swimming shark was a couple of years old and that in a few weeks she would be released back into Narragansett Bay, where she will grow much bigger.

Everyone tried to touch the shark as she swam by them, never stopping her circular laps. The excited little fingers seemed to scare her off as she dove deeper into the tank, but she always came up for my hand. One youngster even stuck around for a half hour, unsuccessfully trying for chance to pet her.

Despite my being an intern at the Save The Bay headquarters in Providence, I felt like a real shark tank expert! People would ask me questions, and I tried to sound knowledgeable, but usually leaned over to a regular Exploration Center docent for the correct answer. All of the employees made my experience, and especially my time with the sharks, so enjoyable. The fun learning environment made it easy for me to jump in and quickly become an expert on all of the native species. I will definitely be going back to the Exploration Center and Aquarium to visit my Dogfish friends and brush up on my marine biology facts!

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Whole New World

By Julia Akerman, Communications Intern

I live in a world of writing, media, and chaos. In other words, the world of public relations. As a communications intern at Save The Bay, I write blogs, press releases, and update media lists, all from the inside of a cube on a computer. I was lucky enough to leave my beloved cube for a day and take a field trip to explore a different component of Save The Bay. I volunteered at the Exploration Center in Newport, and I had an amazing experience.

The moment I opened the door, I felt like I was inside an aquarium. Kids were pointing at the tanks with excitement, and aquarists were describing exotic critters with words I didn’t know existed. Everywhere I looked, eyes from different types of critters glaring at me. I immediately became intrigued and excited for the day I had ahead of me.

The day began with an amazing start at admissions, because the open doors provided a cool ocean breeze and breathtaking views of the beautiful Easton’s Beach in Newport. Families came rushing in throughout the morning, the kids tugging on their parents’ arms, begging them to hurry up so they could go explore inside.

For the rest of the day, I was inside the Exploration Center stationed at the unique touch tanks. The first touch tank was crawling with horseshoe crabs and hovering skates. One by one, curious children popped their heads over the edge to see the horseshoe crabs, their eyes lighting up with excitement. To my surprise, many children were afraid of the horseshoe crabs, because they thought their spikey tails were harmful. I helped the courageous children hold the horseshoe crabs and shared with them that the tail’s purpose is to help the horseshoe crab flip over if they land on their backs.

I ended my day with my favorite exhibit, the shark touch tank. This touch tank interested me the most, because not only was it cool to observe the behaviors of the sharks, but also to see the reactions of visitors at the tank. When people first approached the tank, they were hesitant but very curious at the same time. After studying the sharks, a few daring souls gathered enough courage to stick their hands down to touch them. Witnessing this experience for people was amazing because I know many people fear sharks and, here they began to realize that the violent image society has painted about sharks - happens to be false.

My experience at the Exploration Center was unforgettable. I was fascinated to see so many different species of animals in the aquariums and to know that they were all found in the Narragansett Bay. I am thankful that I can return to my beloved cube and share my experience with all of you. Thanks to Save The Bay, the public is welcome to learn more about Narragansett Bay’s marine life at this amazing facility on Easton’s Beach and to help support its mission to protect and improve the Narragansett Bay area.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Critter Tales - The Dinosaur of Narragansett Bay

By Julia Akerman, Communications Intern

First of all, you may be thinking, “Wait, there were dinosaurs in Narragansett Bay? What?!” It’s true, there were, and still are. I’m talking about a small, brown marine species related to scorpions and spiders.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab has roamed the ocean floor for over 360 million years. These living fossils have survived for decades thanks to their brown, helmet-like shell that protects its vital organs from any potential predators. While its spiny tail is commonly mistaken by people as a weapon for defense, it’s actually just used to flip themselves over. If you keep your eyes open, you can encounter these critters anywhere along the coast of the Narragansett Bay. From personal experience, these prehistoric creatures are amusing to watch as they dwell in their environments.

Growing up by the Long Island Sound, another home to the Atlantic horseshoe crab, I spent most of my free time competing with my siblings to see who could find the coolest critter on the beach. I was walking along the coast one day and spotted a dark figure in the murky water. I moved closer and noticed a spikey tail that immediately scared the living daylights out of me. I managed to gather enough courage to pick it up and to my surprise it was a horseshoe crab. I became fascinated with the creature.

When I volunteered at Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium this summer, I was excited to be assigned to the skate and horseshoe crab touch tank, because I finally got the opportunity to learn some more about the prehistoric creatures and relive my unforgettable childhood encounter at the beach. I learned that horseshoe crabs are scavengers, prowling the ocean floor for food such as small clams, worms and other invertebrates. They have five pairs of legs that are used for walking and pushing food closer to their mouths. I found that the horseshoe crabs’ gills were its coolest characteristic. Fun fact: another name for these gills is “book gills” because they are similar to the pages of a book and allow the horseshoe crab to breathe under water as well as on land for a short period of time as long as the gills remain moist. If you ever want to impress your family or friends by telling the difference between a male and female, just keep in mind that females are bigger than males and the first pair of appendages for a female are pincers, while the first pair for males are claws that resemble boxing gloves.

Throughout the day at the aquarium, curious guests visited the touch tank waiting their turn to hold the horseshoe crabs and learn more about them. A handful of people were nervous at first but as I shared more knowledge about the creature, their fascination grew which reminded me of myself when I was younger. Most of the horseshoe crabs brought in to the Exploration Center suffer from poor health conditions. One horseshoe crab in the tank is a lot smaller than the others, as he got older he never grew in size. If you visit the Exploration Center don’t hesitate to ask about him! Don’t miss out on this opportunity because like the other critters at the aquarium, once his health is restored, he will be released back into the Narragansett Bay.

Learn more about these living fossils at the Save The Bay Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport, and enjoy an unforgettable, hands-on experience with our expert aquarists! We are located on Easton’s Beach at 175 Memorial Blvd and open 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. every day!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Hidden Treasure

By Bay Gammans, communications intern

I’m shocked as my GPS tells me to pull into the parking lot at Easton’s Beach, Newport. I’ve been to this beach countless times, and not once have I noticed the Save The Bay Exploration Center sign. Who would guess that this brick rotunda building held a 1500 square foot aquarium?

I’m a summer communications intern at Save The Bay, giving me a chance to volunteer at the Save The Bay Exploration Center. I was luck enough to volunteer on the same day Sowams Elementary School kindergarteners explored the aquarium. Seeing the excitement and interest in their eyes, only magnified my own.

My favorite tank station was the little skate and horseshoe crab touch tank. The little skate exhibit was of special interest to me, because a visitor can see the full life cycle of the creature. A tank to the side of the touch tank holds mermaid purse eggs getting ready to hatch. The little skates will incubate for 9 to 10 months in this tank, until they hatch. Once they hatch they move to a tank directly beside it until they are big enough to move to the touch tank or be released.

A visitor may notice that there is a lighter type of egg also kept in that same hatching tank, these are the chain catsharks’. While I was volunteering at the shark touch tank, I was lucky enough to see a chain catshark in the process of laying an egg, which they lay in pairs.

The day of my visit to the aquarium must have been lucky, because I was also able to see a spider crab clean her eggs. Spider crab mothers incubate their eggs in their stomach until they hatch. During this time the spider crab will clean and check their eggs, removing ones that are no longer fertile.

I have recently become weary of zoos and aquariums. I was relieved to hear not only that all of the creatures in the exploration center are local, but that many are also released once they have recovered from injuries or are big enough to survive in the wild, only kept there if they can’t survive otherwise. For example, the Exploration Center has one tank with tropical fish that have drifted on the Gulf Stream into the Bay and would not survive the cold winter waters in the wild.

The cozy area holding the aquarium creates a unique and personalized experience. A volunteer or intern is always available to hand a visitor one of their critters, while teaching them more about what lives right outside their door. Save The Bay’s Exploration Center truly is a hidden treasure.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Why Does Bowser Have a Shell? - Save The Bay Podcast 23

This October at Save The Bay’s Exploration Center and Aquarium, the amazing adaptations of its residents are on display. Visitors will learn about unique animal adaptations, enjoy an interactive story time and go searching around the Aquarium during an adaptation-themed scavenger hunt. Guests also can engage in a unique arts and crafts project creating their own adaptation that they believe would help them survive in Narragansett Bay.