The cushion sea star lives on coral reefs throughout the Indo-Pacific
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Birch Aquarium at Scripps

2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla

On a gray day in May, a group of San Marcos Middle School girls and other visitors gathered in the Birch Aquarium galleria to try something that had not been done at the aquarium before: a live ship-to-shore communication with scientists aboard a research vessel. From the ship Sikuliaq, a research vessel 40 nautical miles off shore north of Point Conception (California’s coastal elbow), Scripps scientists patched in via Skype to talk with the eighth-graders about research conducted on the ship. While the students chatted with researchers about El Niño studies and the challenges of adapting to daily life on a boat, Birch Aquarium staff tried out a concept that will be integrated into Expedition a new exhibit being phased in this year.

The concept: link visitors to the seagoing action aboard research vessels. It’s a view that land-dwellers never see: the open water, sea birds above, and ocean-dwellers swimming along (or jumping, or breaching) on camera. Shark, whale, and dolphin sightings happen fairly regularly.

A vision of the aquarium’s director, Harry Helling, the exhibit aims to immerse visitors in the exploration experience. It will replace the climate-change exhibit called Feeling the Heat. A display demonstrating the high-tech capabilities of Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s new $280 million research ship Sally Ride will be the centerpiece. An exhibit preview in June and July included El Niño watchers and a shipwreck-diving marine archaeologist. Officially opening in October, the exhibit is rolling out in stages

Hence the “guinea pigs” from San Marcos Middle School. It just so happened that one of the field trips on the aquarium’s schedule for that day back in May was a group of eighth-grade girls and their teacher Debra Brice, a National Science Foundation grant recipient.

Brice takes her students on field trips to the Ocean Institute in Orange County, “Where they go out to sea for a half day on a boat. They do plankton tows, sedimentation analysis, side scan sonar, water chemistry, wildlife observation (whale watching), and then lunch on beach, and then more hands-on lab studies inside. They spend a day being oceanographers.

“Studies have shown that it is middle school where you need to capture their attention, where they decide on what they might take in high school and where their interests may lie for the future,” said Brice, who says she works to employ the STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math — system into her curriculum.

Brice had already planned a day of science activities for the girls — a visit to Scripps Marine Facility at Point Loma and a stop at Birch to see the exhibits and meet with Scripps researchers — when the aquarium contacted her to ask if she would be willing to try out the ship-to-shore call live in the aquarium galleria. Brice — who has been a teacher-at-sea on six Scripps cruises and has arranged for live broadcasts into her classroom from Antarctica, along the Equator, and the coast of Hawaii — said yes.

A Skype call sounds simple enough, but since cell towers are not available in the ocean and satellite connections are expensive, the plentiful bandwidth we’re accustomed to on land is not available aboard ships. Satellite position, weather, and wave swell also influence communication.

Mark Ohman, professor of biological oceanography and lead Scripps researcher on the cruise, said “we had to allocate all our shipboard internet bandwidth to this call, placing all links temporarily on hold.”

“We could see the researchers, but they couldn’t see us,” said Birch Aquarium post-doctoral fellow Darcy Taniguchi, who set up the call.

“The ship-to-shore communication has made me want to share our research more with younger students. I was glad to see how eager the students were to learn more about what we do,” said Angel Ruacho, a graduate student on the cruise. Ruacho went along to take measurements of iron dissolved in seawater (just like humans, aquatic animals need iron to stay healthy). “I think the session went pretty well and the students asked good questions pertaining to the kind of work we were doing at sea.”

Ohman and the crew aboard Sikuliaq took to sea at relatively short notice to study the effects of the 2015–’16 El Niño on the California Current Ecosystem, named for the cold current that flows down the west coast of North America. Scripps scientists were, Ohman said, “anxious to learn just how the ocean food web and biogeochemical cycles were affected,” by the warm water of El Niño. To do so, they had to borrow a ship from University of Alaska Fairbanks, because a Scripps ship was not available. “It’s too soon to report definitively our results,” Ohman told the kids at the Institute, “but a few things are clear. Not only was the ocean anomalously warm, but phytoplankton [single-celled algae] were anomalously sparse.”

Phytoplankton are the base of the ocean food chain. The smallest organisms in the ocean affect the largest: minuscule krill eat phytoplankton, and baleen whales (among many other animals) eat krill. Existence in the ocean depends on phytoplankton to convert light into energy to make the building blocks of life.

A display describing the study of the California Current Ecosystem was the first installation in Expedition Images from the Sikuliaq cruise compared plankton samples before and during El Niño. To show how scientists cope with the realities of being at sea — such as 24-hour-every-day data collection, cramped quarters, and galley food — the exhibit included little snacks and games that they bring along to help them stay comfortable (and sane).

One of Brice’s students, Angelee Castro, said she was impressed by “the way they kept themselves detail-oriented and focused while in unstable conditions such as the sea.”

“I’m very fascinated in oceanography and Mrs. Brice’s field trips and guest speakers have piqued my interest in these fields,” said another classmate, Hayden Yantha.

After the ship-to-shore call, the San Marcos Middle School students moved to a classroom bungalow, next to the aquarium’s shark tank, for a face-to-face with Scripps scientists. They hit it off with researcher Damien Leloup, whose French accent and enthusiasm for underwater study bring to mind the most famous ambassador of oceanography, Jacques Cousteau. Leloup spent a year at Scripps on research and development for a new program focusing on marine archeology — a discipline dedicated to finding and studying shipwrecks.. “Not only that, but also studying past human interaction with the sea, vessel structures, and submerged settlements from when the oceans were lower,” Leloup added.

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