Budding biologists take walk on beach

Posted: Friday, May 03, 2002

HOMER -- Beach hoppers, barnacles, gunnels and chitons, mussels, moonsnails, sea pork and tritons, tubeworms and sea stars and cockles and kelp, were found living in tide pools with almost no help. Identifying the wee critters, however, took a bit of professional expertise.

Beachcombing third-graders from West Homer Elementary School got all they needed Monday from staffers with the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. The occasion: A morning field trip to Bishops Beach, one of Homer's most popular attractions and a first-class learning environment for studying wildlife and habitat.

A caravan of cars brings roughly 70 eager youngsters from the school to the refuge visitor center at about 9 a.m. There, they are met by Melonie Shipman, the refuge's environmental education coordinator, and internists Lisa Girardin and Pauli lida, who came to Homer as refuge summer volunteers.

After a brief admonition on tide pool etiquette -- remember, don't do harm -- the refuge workers accompany teachers Lynn Maslow, Caroline Venuti and Debbie Smith, several parents and the horde of rubber-booted young marine biologists single file down a steep dirt path to the shore.

It is warm, as the end of April should be, and jackets against the cold soon come off.

Bishops Beach is a wide and varied expanse at low tide. Its generous span of effortless sand is broken here and there by broad quarries of rounded stone, often covered by seaweed, demanding of walkers the utmost attention to balance.

But in those rocky regions, in tranquil pools left behind by the cycling tide, can be found an abundance of life. And it is there that the students gather to learn.

Among the first lessons: Dancing in the water only sends up clouds of silt, making observation difficult. But soon, with a little care, students begin finding the tiny life forms that inhabit the intertidal zone.

A few prefer searching on their own, crouching low to peer into the tiny caves formed by overlaying stones in search of hermit crabs or jellyfish or -- the big prize -- an octopus.

Most students gather around the refuge workers for explanations about the creatures they've found, how they live, what they feast upon and how they keep from being something else's dinner.

"It's eat or be eaten," Shipman explains.

She holds up a baby sea star and tells the youngsters how light receptors on the ends of its arms see shadow and light. Bending one arm back in a half circle, the starfish "looks about."

"Is it safe? Should I 'run?'" These are everyday decisions of life and death for such tide pool dwellers.

Shipman sets the delicate echinoderm gently back into the water where she'd picked it up.

"Always return it where you found it. It wants to be there," she tells the children.

Curious, one youngster holds up a gunnel, a tiny silver fish. He is soon challenged.

"Put it back! It's still alive!"

"It is not! It's dead," he protests.

It flops about in his palm. He puts it back.

Meanwhile, others are finding rock oysters, cockle shells, sea lettuce, limpets, periwinkle, urchins and more -- but no octopus, not this day, anyway. Shipman assures her group she saw one just the other day.

The morning sees its share of soaked pant legs, boot bottoms filled with sea splash, and the occasional misstep that lands a few ingloriously upon their backsides. But mostly the day is filled with laughter and excitement.

The warm morning soon turns into midday. The army, spread out in platoons over more than a half-mile of beach, grows hungry. At the command of referee's whistles, they head toward assembly at the base of the bluff.

Several small parades become one marching up the muddy path and back to the vehicles. From there, the students are driven to the Bishops Beach campground a short distance away for a repast of homemade bag lunches complimented by hot dogs and s'mores, and a bit of play before heading back to school for afternoon lessons.

Along the beach, the tide is beginning to return to wash away any evidence of their presence.

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