Staci DeSchryver: An Underwater Petting Zoo, July 28th, 2011

NOAA Teacher at Sea
Staci DeSchryver

Onboard NOAA Ship Oscar Dyson
July 26 – August 12, 2011 

Mission: Pollock Survey
Geographical area of cruise: Gulf of Alaska
Location:  57.43287 N, 152.28867 W
241.2 (Stationary)
Date: July 28, 2011

Science and Technology Log

Well, we are still in port as of today.  Hopefully we will get rolling in the next couple of days or so, but the time in port has offered a whole new dimension of experiences that we otherwise would not have had the chance to share in had we left on schedule.  So, this is a bit of blessing in disguise.

Yesterday, we went to the Kodiak Fisheries Research Center.  Here, important scientific research is performed on a number of different species.  For example, there are a number of studies currently being done on various crab species found in the Bering Sea.  In addition to this important work, the center has an outreach welcome center with an aquarium and a touch tank – what I termed the “underwater petting zoo.”  In the underwater petting zoo, I had the chance to handle multiple anemones, sea stars, crab, sea cucumbers, and sponges!  It was truly a unique experience.  The “petting zoo” has a continual supply of seawater flowing into and out of the tank, so the animals have a constant supply of fresh seawater where they can comfortably live.

touch tank
These are just some of the critters we got to handle in the underwater petting zoo called the touch tank. The green and red anemone in the upper right corner of the picture felt like a soft pillow! They do have stingers, but they are so small that human hands cannot feel their angry "zap."

What was exciting to me was that the species we were handling were all native species found in and around Alaska’s waters.  The tank was so bright and beautiful that my first assumption was that they were surely tropical animals in the tanks.  Even if I returned from my trip without believing anyone when they told me that they were endemic species to the area, I saw two sea stars in the bay on my way back from a run this morning which confirmed that no one was pulling my leg.

What was even more interesting was that we got a private, behind-the-scenes tour from Dr. Robert Foy, the director of the center.  We got to see multiple studies being conducted in the “back rooms” of the fisheries center, and I even got to “pet” an octopus.  Octopuses are extraordinary little creatures.  One experiment revealed that they were clever enough to unlatch doors separating it from prey.  Another experiment demonstrated that they have quite discerning tastes with respect to their diets – they have been observed “sniffing”  (they don’t really smell, but this is a good comparison) out prey in sealed jars, selecting the prey they wish to consume, unscrewing the cap on the jar, and having a feast.

Wanted: This is a photographer's rendition of an octopus last seen escaping from the AFSC. Be careful with identification, as it is equipped with the evolutionary ability to change both color and texture -- therefore, any confirmed octopus sighting may be the offending octopus mentioned herein. While extremely stealthy, octopus only eats what it wants to -- and it's usually not people.

One octopus in the lab actually accessed a tiny crack in the lid on the tank and “made a break for it”.  He is currently at large, although the scientists in the lab suspect that he pulled a “Nemo” and actually made it back out to the ocean.  If you do see a large, red octopus lurking in the streets of your hometown, do not try to apprehend it.  Call the appropriate authorities immediately.  He is most decidedly “armed” and dangerous.

Another fun little critter I had the chance to hold was a Chianoecetes bairdi, or a Bairdi crab.  It was a bit intimidating when Dr. Foy deftly scooped one out of the tank and informed us that if we got in the way of his claws, that we would “only” be badly cut up.  (Apparently, King Crab have penchant for finger removal).  This particular crab had a missing leg.  What we learned was that if a crab loses a leg unexpectedly (say, to melted butter, for example…) in a situation where it gets pulled off without warning, it is akin to any other animal losing a limb.  However, if the crab can sense that the leg is getting pulled off slowly, it can release the leg on its own, and its body will “cauterize” the wound, which will help the crab to survive.  Dr. Foy mentioned that at times, when crabs are pulled on board a ship under stressful conditions, they will “drop” all of their legs as a defense mechanism.  I imagine that to be quite an interesting sight!

Personal Log

Today we made the drive out to an area called Fossil Beach.  Fossil beach is called fossil beach because of its complete abundance of metamorphic rock which is geologically unsupportive of fossils.  Just kidding.  The beach, aside from being interesting from a scientific perspective, is a rare gem – visited by few, but appreciated by all who are lucky enough to discover it.  Mussels and snails clung ferociously to the sides of partially submerged stones, eagles glided soundlessly high above us, and seals curiously poked their heads out of the water, sneaking glances at those of us on the beach who were lucky enough to spot their quizzically inquisitive stares before retreating under the cover of opaque green waves.  After a stroll along the deserted, gray-black beach, we discovered a “Salmonberry Smorgasbord” along a roadside nearby.  The surf beach was a few miles away from the fossil hunting beach, and we stopped there to look at the herd of wild horses peacefully grazing along the backshore to spend some time alone in a world that made me feel peacefully small.

The beach is a place where two Titans meet. The first gleans his power from being stoic, rugged, and unyielding.  The second gains supremacy from flexibility – throwing her weight against any object upon which she desires to bend to her imposing will.  I watched an unending battle ensue at the boundary of their respective domains, knowing there will be no clear victor in the struggle for sovereignty.  With each incoming attack, parts of the unyielding god would decidedly give way to the relentless inertia of the empress of flexibility – only to return home with the next crashing swell.

surf beach
This is the beach - I assure you, the photo does it no justice, but watching the fog quietly roll in on the wave-cut cliffs was a sure highlight of my trip.

Evidence of the eternal war littered the interface – wave-cut cliffs, sea stacks, and islands were a fierce reminder of her relentless and obsessive power to gradually wear away her enemy.  Conversely, wide sandy beaches were a testament to his ability to remain steadfast in a quest to gain purchase from her murky depths.  It will be years, if ever, before a champion is determined – an infinite stalemate between two equally impressive and imposing giants.  As I walked along the beach, I embraced the loving reliability of Titan Earth, but did so in anticipation of a rendezvous with Titan Sea.  I appreciated them with both apprehension and respect, knowing I would depart from the one I’ve desperately clung to for all of my years in favor of the mysterious and untested depths of the unknown.  Both provide and claim that which is theirs, and I predict some personal difficulty in learning the vehicles by which this is done in the midst of an unfamiliar god.  Thankfully, I am in the confident hands of those who find the ocean as a friend despite her unpredictable and enigmatic nature.

Species Seen
Kodiak Bear
Arctic Tern
Wild Horses
Bairdi Crab
Sea Stars
Sea Cucumbers
Hermit Crab
Bull Kelp



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