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Students of Sea Get Feet Wet

August 13, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

Snorkeling through kelp beds in sparkling ocean water and greeting schools of cavorting dolphins aren't typical summer adventures of an Idaho farmer's daughter.

But, for five weeks this summer, 17-year-old Amy Hunsaker of Rupert, Ida., and 16 other teen-agers from 12 states shared such experiences during an intensive oceanology course at Occidental College.

The program consisted of daily classroom lectures at the Eagle Rock campus, occasional field trips and a day spent every week aboard the research vessel Vantuna, a former albacore fishing boat donated to the college by an alumnus in 1968.

Excitement and Drudgery

The course allows the youngsters, many of whom live in landlocked states, to taste both the excitement and drudgery of marine biology before possibly committing themselves to its depths.

"There aren't many opportunities for students to study the ocean where they can do more than just stand at the seashore," said Dr. Gary Martin, a biology professor at Occidental College. He is director of the 14-year-old summer program.

"It's been great. You get to do and learn such a variety of things in a short amount of time," Hunsaker said during the class's final outing to Santa Catalina Island on Friday. "Plus, we've been to the beach, a zillion different restaurants, shopping, horseback riding, and we learned to play beach volleyball. We're like a great, big family."

The eclectic group of students included a Texas football player infatuated with the adventures of Jacques Cousteau, a Vermont teen-ager who never before touched a fish and a Pacific Palisades surfer concerned about water pollution.

Each paid $1,900 for tuition, a room in a college dormitory, meals and supervised weekend entertainment. They spent another $30 on books. They earned three college semester units.

Before they were accepted, a minimum B-plus average was required. "That shows that they're willing to work," Martin said.

A Lot of Work

And work they did. They attended daily lectures, wrote reports and studied for two mid-term tests and a final examination.

The field trips included a 6 a.m. tour of tide pools in Palos Verdes, a weekend camping trip to Monterey and a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an afternoon of sea lion watching near Santa Barbara Island and a day of deep-sea rock fishing.

But the heart of the program remained the voyages on the Vantuna. Occidental alumnus Gilbert C. Van Kamp Jr. donated the boat to the school, distinguishing it as one of the few private liberal arts colleges in the country with such a vessel.

The Vantuna took the students along 26 miles of Southern California shoreline and out to Catalina. The trips began July 6 with a half-day cruise around the San Pedro harbor, where the 85-foot boat is docked.

First came a brief, no-nonsense lesson in Vantuna etiquette from one of several Occidental science students assisting the group. If you get seasick, don't use the upper deck or bathroom but "lean over the lower rails, please," he said.

And, from another, a warning to the fashion conscious: "You're going to get dirt, mud and fish mucous on everything you wear." A few wrinkled their nose at the thought--but, by the end of the program Friday, any squeamishness had long since departed and the summer students seemed more like seasoned scientists.

The First Trawl

As the Vantuna slowly cut its way from the harbor dock on that first day, program instructors Mike Mullin and Tammy Bird introduced the youngsters to the trawl.

With assistance from the Vantuna's permanent crew, instructors attached a net to the boat's 10-ton winch and lowered it 36 feet into the water, leaving it to drag behind the slow-moving vessel.

Ten minutes later, the net, bulging with flopping queen fish, anchovies, croak fish and tongue fish, was lifted from the water and dumped onto a large wooden pallet for the students' inspection. Screeching gulls circled above, keeping close watch on the group's catch.

"Go ahead, you guys, grab a fish," Bird said.

A few bold students eagerly picked up the flopping creatures, passing them through the tight circle into the hands of the more apprehensive of the group until everyone had held at least one.

Drew Hinkley of Vermont exhaled a sigh of relief after touching her first fish.

"I was kinda nervous about it," the soft-spoken teen-ager said after dropping it back into the pallet.

By contrast, Hunsaker was more candid in her assessment.

Slimy and Gross

Blecch!" she screeched, "You can see the slime come off them. It's really gross! Fish in Idaho, I don't know, they're just different. But I'll get used to it."

But the displays of disgust melted into awe as a second trawl from 175 feet below the water hauled in halibut, spotted turbot and two prizes: a small bat ray and a 40-pound California electric torpedo ray.

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