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.

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