NOAA Teacher at Sea
NOAA Ship Reuben Lasker
July 7-15, 2019
Mission: Coastal Pelagic Species Survey
Geographic Area: Northern Coast of California
Date: July 22, 2019
Weather at 1200 Pacific Standard Time on Monday 22 July 2019
When I walk outside onto the deck, the sky is a stunning shade of blue matching the color of Frost Glacier Freeze Gatorade. The sun is warm against my skin – I’m finally not wearing a jacket – and bright, but not so bright that I have to squint against the reflection of the water. I put my sunglasses on anyway since the polarized lenses help me see more defined colors in bright sunlight. The instruments show 15° Celsius right now with 25 knot winds. The horizon has a funny haze along its whole length even though the sky above me is absolutely clear. When I look over the long distance, I’m seeing cumulative aerosols – dust, water vapor, and other particles suspended in the air to form a haze along the horizon. I can’t see it directly above me even though it must be there.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen this whole trip, even when you take the coastline into account, are the squid. Never thought I’d write that sentence. But they sparkle and change colors! Last week we found a tiny octopus in something called a bongo tow (I’ll explain that in the science section). That little critter was even more awe inspiring. It had big turquoise eyes that reminded me of peacock feathers.
While I was in Newport, Oregon before the ship left, I was walking around Newport Marina and found a couple of guys painting a mural. The one who designed the mural is an art teacher at Newport High School. We started talking about his mural and the NOAA Teacher at Sea program. In addition to his career as an art teacher, Casey McEneny also runs his own art studio called Casey McEneny Art. The other guy helping him, Jason, has an art studio called Jay Scott Studios.
By painting the commissioned mural, he was connecting his career with his love of art and his community. His son even participated in the process by filling in a small portion of the mural while Casey worked on outlining the rest of it. Later he’ll go back and overlay the mural with color so it pops off the wall.
Ok, so the bongo tow. Do you remember as a kid (if you were a kid in the movies) when you used to run through fields of flowers catching butterflies in a butterfly net? I’m imagining a 6 year old girl with a flowing sundress. Well, take two oversized white butterfly nets and attach them to a metal frame that look like spectacles. Each hoop in this frame has a 71 centimeter diameter. These mesh nets each have a codend just like the trawl nets, except these codends are less than 1 foot long and are made out of extremely fine mesh. They’re designed to catch zooplankton – copepods, krill – and other smaller things that the net collects while traveling through the water column.
The juvenile octopus we found in the bongo tow last week was too difficult to identify at that young stage. It was only about 1 inch long. I searched through their identification books in the lab and tried to figure it out, but even the scientists said that the science community just doesn’t know enough yet about cephalopods (think octopus and squid species) to identify this beautiful creature until it’s an adult. We do know, since it has 8 arms and a fused mantle, that it’s at least an octopus and not a squid. Squid are not octopods, they’re decapods – in addition to the 8 arms they also have 2 long tentacles.
There are two species of octopus living in this area that look very similar even as adults. They are the Enteroctopus dofleini (Pacific Giant Octopus) and the Octopus rubescens (East Pacific Red Octopus). As adults, they’re both a dark red color almost like rust or brick. The artist I mentioned earlier, Casey, included a Pacific Giant Octopus in his mural at Newport Marina. But those are just two of many, many species of octopods in this area. Our little guy is probably neither of those. Still, I’m hoping it is a baby Octopus rubescens since they have a high density of chromatophores that make them sparkle!
The chromatophores are cells that both reflect light and contain different colors (pigment). They come in all different patterns and are distinct enough to use as identification tools for different species. They can be individually large or small and show up either in dense patches or scattered like freckles. Octopus and squid species contract and expand these special cells to change color based on necessity, if they need camouflage for example, or it’s thought that they even use color to communicate their mood. I’ve seen them sparkle in brilliant colors like a kaleidoscope but that’s probably, unfortunately, an expression of their agitated state since we’re catching them.
While there’s no way to tell exactly what they’re thinking, it is well known that octopus species are highly intelligent compared to other animals found in the ocean. They are curious, they sometimes play pranks on divers, and they seem to be more intentional than fish in their actions. Their intelligence made me think they’d have long lives, that they gained experience and personality over time, but octopus species typically only live a few years. Females will usually only reproduce once in their short life spans.
There are so many ways to connect cephalopods to the classroom! First, research shows octopus species may plan ahead and that they can learn and adapt to their surroundings. They’re problem solvers. They’re curious by nature. How often do I wish my students were more curious about learning and literacy! By reading about the resiliency and learning capabilities of an octopus, maybe it will inspire my students to see themselves as more capable of persevering through difficult challenges and adapting their learning styles to meet the needs of different disciplines. I can drive home the point that studying for biology might not look the same as studying for their upcoming test in civics, and that the more academic learning tools they have to employ from their toolbox, the more they’ll be able to master this whole “being a student” thing. If you’re at a loss for how to bring an octopus into the classroom, try starting with this activity from the NY Times Learning Network called Learning with “Yes, the Octopus is Smart as Heck. But Why?”.
Casey, the art teacher from Newport High School, shared an interesting activity from his art class. He recommends using images of zooplankton under microscope (we found plenty of these in our bongo tow!) to inspire abstract art projects similar to how Carl Stuwe intertwined science with art at the beginning of the 20th century. English teachers could share the same images to get students writing creative fiction or a mini lesson on imagery. Science and art provide a natural blend and plenty of opportunities for teachers to collaborate and combine our instructional force so we can integrate important concepts across the disciplines.
As a literacy teacher, I can’t help but think about how awesome it would be to teach my students the Latin prefixes and root words that are commonly used to name sea creatures. Names like Doryteuthis opalescens, Rossia pacifica, Octopus californicus, or Thysanoteuthis rhombus. Then, let them loose to name, design, describe, and share their own octopus species – yet to be discovered! While I’m sure their imaginations would come up with some elaborate ideas, few things are ever as fantastical as reality. Check out the Vampyroteuthis infernalis living in the deep, dark depths of the ocean.
We wouldn’t have found this creature or been able to capture its image without technology like Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and underwater submersible vehicles. There are clearly ways to link instruction to technology courses in addition to art, science, and literacy. Maybe students could take a sea creature that already exists and use mixed media to present an artistic representation of it like the Oregon Coast Aquarium did for their Seapunk exhibit. They could get their mixed media supplies from scrap leftover in the tech wing.
- NOAA Ocean Explorer – Octopus Friday Photo Gallery
- Frontiers in Communication – Cephalopods Between Science, Art, and Engineering: A Contemporary Synthesis
- Bridge – An Ocean of Free Teacher-Approved Marine Education Resources
- Share My Lesson – Octopus Camouflage Lesson