Amazing Nature: Nov. 22

Maritime Science and Technology students study plankton samples at the Ocean Science Discovery Lab. (Photo courtesy Switgard Duesterloh)

If you were not born in Kodiak, ask yourself why life has placed you here. For most readers, the answer has something to do with Kodiak’s place in the productive North Pacific Ocean.

People live in Kodiak because of fishing, seafood processing, fishing management or research, the Coast Guard, or to provide the numerous services required by the people who live here because of the fisheries and the ocean.

One such service is education, and our schools teach some of the skills young people need to successfully get employed in the businesses associated with fisheries, boats and water.

The maritime science and technology class at the high school, taught by long-time fisherwoman, boat captain, educator-par-excellence and good friend Jane Eisemann includes a curriculum covering what a young person needs to know when they consider fishing as part of their future.

Spiced with boat trips, guest speakers and hands-on activities, the class investigates fishing methods, management, the biology of local fish species and ocean issues. I have a good friend who has fished here for over 40 years and has repeatedly remarked that when he hires students who went through this class, they know their stuff.

This week, the students learned about plankton and its role in providing the food base for fisheries. As a former plankton ecologist, I consider it a pleasure to be involved in teaching a plankton lab.

For this activity, the class was divided into two groups. The first group investigated live plankton samples I hauled in from the dock at Trident basin, while their peers obtained their own plankton samples from the school vessel K-Hi-C. The first day, the lab group studied a plankton sample I hauled in off the dock at Trident Basin the previous day. The second lab studied what they had caught from the boat.

There is a surprising wealth of plankton in these samples. I call it surprising because we think of plankton blooms as occurring mostly in the spring, with somewhat smaller numbers persisting in summer and fall. Looking at the white slush outside my window, we are definitely in winter.

Nonetheless, the samples include multitude of small crustaceans, including shrimp larvae. The most obvious animals in the sample jars are the gooseberries, beautiful translucent comb jellies with oblong-spherical bodies, two tentacles and little rows of beating lamellae that enable the animals to gently glide through the water.

Also seen in large numbers are very small jellyfish. Some of these may be young jellyfish, but they’re more likely to be species that never grow very large. One student called me to look at what she had under her microscope. It took a while — and the opinion of a collegue — to unravel a small mystery scene unfolding in the petri dish.

A small rockfish larva was getting consumed by no less than seven very small jellies; the tail fin was completely gone, while the head was inside one jellies’ umbrella, so that it looked like the fish was wearing a glass bowl on its tiny head. It is likely that this scene was a result of concentrated plankton left in a jar and would not happen in the wide spaces of the ocean. As in so many cases when it comes to the amazing denizens of the ocean, we know very little about most of these inconspicuously small and beautifully amazing jellies, but for the students in the maritime science and technology class, this week was a chance to marvel at life in its small and amazing forms.

Switgard Duesterloh Ph.D., is an assistant professor of natural sciences at Kodiak College. She operates the Kodiak Ocean Science Discovery Lab and teaches ocean science to students throughout the Kodiak Island Borough School District.

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