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Floating Classrooms Take Learning Beyond a Day at the Beach


DANA POINT — Chandra Cole stayed up well past her bedtime, sampling Dana Point's night life and keeping company with a flashy midshipman. But even though Chandra is only 11, her father, Gordon Cole, didn't mind. That's because this night life is three miles out to sea and the midshipman is a tiny, iridescent fish.

Chandra and her father, along with about 40 other paying passengers, took part in a new, and unusual, nighttime boat tour to explore the underwater world of glow-in-the dark sea creatures such as the midshipman fish, which so fascinated Chandra.

The phenomenon that causes the creatures to light up is called bioluminescence--the emission of light from a living organism. Chandra, who spent 45 minutes examining the small fish, was fascinated by the process. And so is Harry Helling, education director of the Orange County Marine Institute, who came up with the idea for the cruise.

The bioluminescence night cruise is one of three new boat tours being offered this summer by the Dana Point institute, which also has created a cruise--using video robotics--to explore nearby kelp forests. The third new program is an environmental fishing cruise in which participants catch and release fish, using barbless hooks.

"This is the first year we've put together a comprehensive program for the general public," Helling says. "We did it because we felt there was a growing need from the public who wanted to know more about the ocean."

The new cruises are patterned after the institute's popular floating lab program, which has been a summer staple for about 10 years. The floating lab, held aboard a 65-foot sportfishing vessel, takes participants out to sea to explore the ocean's plant and animal life. Helling says that each year the weekly labs were a sellout, drawing 400 to 500 people every summer.

The lab has also been expanded this summer and is now being offered three nights a week, instead of just one. "The floating lab has really been our mainstay," Helling says. Because of its popularity, Helling and his staff patterned the three new cruises after the program. "It is really the core that we built everything around," he says.

Although the Orange County Marine Institute serves primarily as a field-trip site for school groups, during the summer the institute opens its programs to the public. And in recent years the public has been clamoring for more, Helling says.

"People would come into the institute and be upset that they couldn't go into the programs we had," he says.

To meet that demand, Helling took some of the ideas used in the institute's school programs and adapted them so that they would appeal to adults as well as kids.

For example, the kelp tour grew out of a kelp forest exploration program broadcast live via video robotics into local school rooms last May.

"The idea was to use the equipment we already have to explore the diversity of life which is in the kelp forest," he says. "When people look down from the surface, all they see is the kelp, not all the sea creatures that live in it. But you'll find about 30 different animals living in it."

To introduce tour participants to those creatures, scientists cruise offshore until they find a large kelp paddy, which they haul aboard and deposit in a tub of water. Passengers help sort through the kelp as marine biologists help them identify the creatures living in the paddy.

"It's really fun," says Helling, who points out that most people are surprised at the quantity and diversity of sea life.

The kelp cruise concludes with an underwater view of the huge forests via video camera.

"We anchor the boat and send the camera down so that people see the forest from underneath the boat," Helling says. "Every time it is different because conditions are different. You can see the kelp in 50 to 60 feet of water. People get to see the kelp as it really is."

While the kelp cruise grew out of one of the institute's school programs, the bioluminescence cruise grew out of Helling's own personal fascination with creatures that glow in the dark.

"Most people are not familiar with bioluminescence, but it is a common phenomenon in the ocean," says Helling, a marine biologist who once worked as an intern in the bioluminescent lab at Scripps Institution in La Jolla. "This is just another way to teach about marine life. It really captivates people."

People are also hooked by the environmental fishing cruise, says Julie Smith, assistant director of education for the floating lab program. Smith, who recently conducted the first fishing cruise, says that participants like the idea of returning the fish, unharmed, to the sea.

"We caught about 25 fish, and they all went back into the ocean," she says. "People drawn to this type of program are mostly curious about the different type of fish that live off the coast, and they want to bring their children along to show them."

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