With a pair of tweezers, Angela Baca, 9, gingerly lifts a tiny sea worm so that she can inspect it at closer range. As one of 26 pint-size marine scientists aboard the 65-foot vessel Sum Fun, Angela is getting a rare opportunity to see the tiny creatures that live in the mud 200 feet below the ocean's surface.
More than 100,000 schoolchildren like Angela have gone to sea in Orange County's Floating Marine Lab program since it began in 1968. But now that school is out for the summer, it's the parents' turn.
Each summer, the popular children's program offers more than a dozen cruises that are open to the public of all ages.
"The summer programs are for the whole family," says Tom Moylan, assistant director of education for the Orange County Marine Institute, which sponsors the shipboard labs. "Often kids who've gone on the program during the school year bring their parents and come back."
Floating Lab dusk cruises are being offered from 6 to 9 p.m. beginning June 30 and continuing each Friday through Aug. 25. But you had better book passage now because the popular programs fill up fast. The June 30, July 14 and July 28 cruises are already sold out, Moylan says.
In addition to the dusk cruises, this year the institute is offering weekend excursions aboard a larger boat--the 85-foot Van Tuna, Occidental College's research vessel. The weekend cruises begin July 15 and continue through Aug. 6. Cost for both programs is $20 for adults and $10 for children age 12 and under.
"The idea behind the program is to get people out to have hands-on sea experience and to see things they wouldn't ordinarily see," says Moylan, a marine biologist who has been working aboard the Floating Lab for the past four years.
On a recent cruise, most of the children had never before ventured out on the ocean. Just watching the boat rise and fall with each swell is new and exciting. The Sum Fun is headed a mile out to sea so that samples can be scooped up from depths of 200 feet or more. Along the way, plankton will be gathered and examined with a sophisticated video microscope system.
Later, in deeper water, a digging tool called a Peterson Grab is lowered to the ocean's muddy floor where its large jaw-like buckets are clamped shut. The grab sampler is then raised and hauled aboard the boat, where the children are encouraged to take a handful of sediment and look for the tiny inhabitants that live in or on the muddy bottom.
"Look what he got," says 10-year-old Alyssa Skillman, pointing to a boy holding a small, cone-shaped organism in the palm of his hand.
"Ugh, I got a worm," says Angelina Gonzales, wrinkling her nose in disgust.
Moylan and colleague Steve Grod help the children identify several sea cucumbers, sand cone tube worms and mustache worms in this day's haul. In classroom studies, the children have already learned about the organisms and now they get to hold them. They also learn that such organisms are called benthic animals because they live in or on the benthos--the surface of the ground underneath the ocean.
"If you just looked at that pile of mud, you wouldn't know that all these different things were in there, would you?" Grod asks as he washes the mud from the organisms and places them on a screen for closer inspection.
"This is a totally different ecosystem," Moylan says. "And they get to compare and contrast these animals, which most of them would never get to see."
After examining the mud samples, the children are ready to set an otter trawl net, which, like the Peterson Grab, is lowered to the ocean floor. A chain along the lower edge of the net holds it against the bottom, while a float holds the top edge up. Water pressure against the doors of the net holds the mouth open as the net is pulled through the water with the movement of the boat. After 15 minutes, the children help haul in the net and squeal with delight when they find it full of a great variety of fish.
Grod and Moylan deposit the fish in individual shallow tanks where the children help identify and get to handle them. But before they begin, Grod delivers a stern warning: "Remember these are live animals, not toys."
For most passengers--children and adults--this portion is a highlight of the cruise. This day's haul includes a California skate, a scorpion fish, a horny-head turbot and a small red octopus. In all, there are nearly a dozen different types of fish. Moylan helps identify each one and then allows the students to get a close-up look, actually passing the fish around hand-to-hand. Afterward, most of the fish are released.
"I'd say that 70% of the fish survive," Moylan says. "Those that don't, go back to the lab for the final portion of the program." That portion, which follows the two-hour cruise, is a one-hour hands-on examination of the specimens, including a dissection.