Campers from McDaniel College's Marine Science Academy apply what they've learned in the classroom on a field trip aboard the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science research vessel Rachel Carson out of Solomons on the Patuxent River.
The day in Solomons started with a snack overlooking the Patuxent River and the Rachel Carson — the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s flagship research vessel.
“That’s definitely a squid,” said Tre Williams, a 15-year-old from Sykesville, pointing to an aquatic critter from the concrete bulkhead.
About 15 campers participating in the marine science segment of McDaniel College’s Summer Science Academy reached into their brown-paper-bagged lunches to get their hands on chips, apples and cookies.
Their instructor, Emily Fair, gave them 15 minutes after the trek from Westminster to eat, hit the head and spray sunscreen. Then it was on to the 81-foot jet boat, where they’d get their hands dirty operating science gear and handling mud, a full variety of river-bottom mud.
“This boat is usually used by graduate and undergraduate students, so it’s kind of a big deal we get to go on it,” Fair told her campers. “Huge privilege.”
Upon boarding the Rachel Carson it was time for a safety lesson from Michael Hulme, the boat’s captain. The do’s and don’ts of being on a real science ship.
“I’m the flight attendant,” he said, explaining the selection of life preservers and “work vests” and telling campers not to joke about saying “man overboard, because this is serious business.”
Hulme assured campers that in the unlikely event someone fell overboard he and Rob Nilsen, first mate and engineer, would retrieve them.
“But then you’ll be known as ‘splash’ for the rest of your career at camp,” he joked. “If that’s not incentive to stay on the boat, I don’t know what is.”
The 70-ton vessel uncleated and pulled away from the dock at 10:35 a.m.
A few minutes later and Hulme eased the boat to a rest. Stop one. Science time.
Nilsen and Jacob Oster, an UMCES graduate student studying mercury accumulation in small-stream ecosystems, set up the plankton net and the small weight attached to it.
Nilson solicited the help of campers and employed an electronic pulley to guide the net to the depths of the Patuxent below.
“There’s going to be all kinds of phyto and hopefully zooplankton in there,” Fair said excitedly to her campers, as she handed out small plastic magnifying glasses.
Campers, who earn a $40,000 scholarship at McDaniel if they complete the science program, collected samples from the plankton net in “makeshift collection plates” (bottoms of plastic water bottles). They examined their first samples with magnifying glasses. The first haul was underwhelming.
“It just kind of looks like little crustaceans,” said Russell Scherr, a 17-year-old camper from Westminster.
Scherr wants to pursue marine biology and said he was excited to discover organisms they pulled from the depths of the river. “I want to do marine biology, so this stuff interests me already.”
“Rob [Nilsen] needs a helper!” Fair yelled across the ship-deck, urging campers to get their hands on UMCES science gear.
Scherr quickly volunteered. It was time to get the first bucket of mud, so he guided the clam-shell bucket into the water as Nilsen manned the pulley controls. Once at the bottom, Nilsen pressed a button and the clam-shell clamped down, scooping a load from the benthic layer.
Water poured out as the bucket surfaced. “That wasn’t a good grab that time,” Nilsen said, “there were shells on the bottom.”
The science wasn’t to be stopped, though. Nilsen and camper volunteers unloaded the contents into a wide plastic container and lugged it to the sorting table, near the stern. “We can sift through it and see what we can find,” Oster said.
“This is a ‘get your hands in and get dirty’ kind of activity,” Fair told some nervous campers. Others needed no encouragement, already wrist-deep in Patuxent mud. Fair divvied out mud in sifting trays and campers added water. The smell of rotten eggs pierced the air. “It really brings out that nice sulfur smell… and it’s really good for your skin.”
Oster passed around the barnacle-covered oyster shells he’d unearthed from dark-brown mud.
“Where’s Marvin? Do you want to get your hands in here?” Fair asked.
Marvin Washington, a 16-year-old camper from Bowie, responded. “Nah.”
“I’m not really into plankton, maybe bigger marine life,” he told the Times. Washington said his mom urged him to do the camp. He used to be into marine science, but now he’s thinking psychology and is more into skateboarding.
On the bow, Oster wielded a Secchi Disk — a black-and-white weight connected to a long rope, which is marked with an orange band every meter. It’s used to measure visibility. “What do we use this for?” he asked campers.
He and a camper lowered the disk into the water and watched carefully as it slowly faded. There was one meter of visibility at the first stop.
At the next stop campers and staff deployed a Niskin Bottle from the pulley to collect water samples from 100 feet below. Fair and campers used the magnifying glasses to inspect the water samples. “I think it’s just sediment,” a disappointed Fair said of the clear water, its contents too small for the naked eye to see.
They grabbed another plankton net sample. Jackpot. “Lot’s of plankton,” Tre Williams said. “They look like tiny, tiny tadpoles.”
“I’ll do it for $10, 15,” Washington said, upping the ante.
Soon after, campers and crew hauled up a mud bucket from 100 feet down. It was gray-black and looked like sludge. They ran their hands through it like homemade slime, but this was something new. Natural, gross and fascinating.
“It’s so slimy,” Scherr said. “There were some clams and leftover clam shells in it.”
It was also different than the mud collected at a different spot less than an hour before, the campers who fearlessly stuck their hands in the mud found.
“It’s interesting to see how varied [the mud] is in spots that are nearby,” said Gabby Fritz, 17 and a senior at Francis Scott Key High School. The lighter colored mud “felt like regular sand, but was brown.”
The final collection site yielded the most robust haul. They used a mini oyster dredge, a smaller version of what watermen drag behind skipjacks, Nilsen explained. It’s out of season, but they have a scientific permit, Hulme, the captain, said.
As the boat dragged the dredge along the bottom, the cable and pulley rattled. “That means we’re going over an oyster bed,” Nilsen told the campers. The pulley swirled as it wheeled the dredge up, then Nilsen and campers poured the catch into a wide bucket.
“Anyone wanna take a look at this?” Oster, holding an open oyster, asked the campers. “Don’t eat it, it’s probably been dead a while.”
The catch included oysters, shells, bloodworms, an arthropod and mud crabs.
Lauren Sykes, a 15-year-old sophomore at Severna Park High, was fascinated by the barnacles attached to the oyster shells. She said she really loves marine life and marine mammals, especially manatees in Florida.
“What’s this little squishy green thing?” Sykes asked, holding another shell she’d dug up. Oster, the graduate student, examined closely: “It’s an anemone.”
He asked the group what they knew about oysters.
“They filter water,” “They taste good,” “They’re dying,” campers responded. Then Oster told them they could throw dead oysters and shells overboard.
Washington and Williams were enthralled. “I have a quarterback arm,” Washington said. Williams let his throws do the talking, launching an oyster shell far into the boat’s wake.
The two competed until no shells remained, at which point the boat was returning to dock.
“I liked the progression of the day,” Fair said, seagulls chirping above her, “that we started with small, microscopic things, piqued the kids’ interest, and by the end of the day we were working with larger organisms.”
The Francis Scott Key High School teacher helped students overcome their trepidation, to embrace dirty hands and beauty of the critters within the mud — inspiring young marine biologists.