Switgard Duesterloh helps a camper at the Ocean Science Discovery and Marine Stewardship Camp.

It has been an amazing week. Actually, eight amazing days of Kodiak’s first Ocean Science Discovery and Marine Stewardship Camp. I admit it started rocky. There were troubles getting an insurance company to provide liability insurance for campers in a small island town in Alaska — one company denied coverage because the camp was to be held near a large body of water (duh). Paperwork, administration, last-minute changes, last-minute cancellations, and a two-day preparation workshop with the four of us educators about to lead the youth in their discovery, creativity and release of energy. Then, finally, the first day of camp.

Camp was filled with art activities, science and ocean exploration. We made painted rocks, ocean puzzles, sponge print wrapping paper, painted wooden fish, beaded octopus, play dough crabs and sea urchins and seaweed design postcards. But those projects were only the beginning of our days. We went plankton sampling and had microscope labs, we went to a rocky shore beach and made a list of all the animals we found, we went to a mudflat beach and caught tiny, coin sized starry flounders, which we also looked at under the microscope and learned about the amazing development of flat fish. When they are very young, one eye migrates over the top of their head and they lay down on one side. We found many different worms; bristle worms and ribbon worms, and flat worms, each a discovery of its own when studied under a microscope. Some of the boys were very interested in caterpillars and other insects, and once we found a dead dragonfly, which was a wonder of iridescent wings and huge compound eyes. While not ocean science, these animals also were worth a closer look under the microscopes. Even salmonberries and orange hawkweed flowers lead to new discoveries when studied up close. 

An ocean favorite of youths are always the jellyfish with their otherworldly appearance and dimorphic life cycle, where the eggs of the jellies develop into polyps, which then bud off tiny jellies to form the next generation. To understand this complex topic, we used playdough to model the life cycle. While the many small jellies we see in the water in the summer are completely harmless, one camper found out that not only the large orange and blue lions mane jellies can cause an itchy rash when touched, but also the large compass jellies. For practical purposes, if the jelly is close to the size of your cereal bowl, stay away from its tentacles (the top of the umbrella is always harmless). At camp, we put some jellies into an aquarium and added blue lights to watch and be mesmerized by their graceful movements.

A highlight for all was a trip on the charter vessel U-Rascal to watch Kodiak wildlife. For some campers a boat trip was not a new thing, but for all it was exciting. Unless you have a boat at your disposal and are on the water a lot, seeing whales is always amazing. Their size makes us feel humble and the sound of their exhale reverberates in our chest like music. This year, the humpback whales spoil us with their close presence and display of behavior that few people ever get to witness.  The campers saw a mother whale with a calf close to shore. They also loved the seals and our attempt at fishing (though we didn’t catch one), and the kelp horns we fashioned on board were sounded for the rest of the day and even went home with someone.

It is my philosophy that you can’t love what you don’t know and you won’t protect what you don’t love. This is why it is so important to me to expose youths to marine life and teach them about it. When the kid’s eyes light up at the sight of marine life and in the moment of discovery, I feel like I have made a small change in the world, which may one day lead to a better choice and ultimately a better future for all. Thus, the other part of this camp was focused on empowering youths to act as stewards of the ocean. 

We had three groups and students picked separate topics for ocean stewardship projects. One group worked on a poster display about climate change and wants to raise some money for local community gardens. The connection is that when we grow food locally, we save on the fuel it takes to fly or barge produce to Kodiak. Because every plane and ship use fossil fuel, locally grown foods help reduce the carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Check the next farmers market for a lemonade stand fundraiser and outreach poster to see young ocean stewards in action!

The second group made a video re-enacting what happened in 1989, when the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef in Prince William Sound and spilled oil into the ocean, which spread throughout the Sound and was carried by currents along the Alaska Peninsula to Kodiak and further. This video will be shared with the Prince William Sound Regional Citizen Advisory Council and posted online for others to see and remember, so that we do not get complacent about the dangers presented by ocean traffic and oil exploration.

This morning, driving down the road I saw a driver in front of me roll down the window and throw a burning cigarette butt into the road. I may have honked at him and even made a rude gesture. I admit it makes my blood boil to see someone so ignorant and disregardful of the environment. Cigarette butts are made of plastic. When that cigarette butt gets washed down the road with the next rain it goes into the drain and straight into the ocean, becoming Marine Debris. As one of the young ocean stewards wrote in an essay for their project : “If an animal eats plastic it can die because it can’t digest it and then it can’t eat any more food.”

Marine Debris was the topic of the third project. Katy Reiser wrote: “Marine Debris is also known as ocean/beach trash. If it is in the ocean, an animal can get hurt from it. If it is on land, a land or marine animal can get hurt. You might be wondering “where does it come from?” It can come from many places. You might find a light bulb from Japan or a toy from China! It can travel very far because of the water currents.” In her conclusion she writes: “If you see Marine Debris please pick it up unless it can hurt you. You could make something with it like we did. We made a jellyfish mobile out of marine debris. We would like to donate it to an organization, where it can be viewed by the public” (Interested parties please email me at keep01@keepkodiak.com).

Youths are calling out to us to do something about environmental degradation. As the poster board says: “If our climate can change, so can we”! I want to close by thanking our team of educators for empowering some young minds to practice their voice in the big world and to have fun in the discovery of things we should all care about. Thank you Sara Persselin, Michelle Weekly and Isa Stihl Wuertz for your energy in these amazing eight days of camp!


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