"I don't want anyone to get pinched today," Carmen Field, an education specialist with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, told a class of Kaleidoscope fourth-graders gathered at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitors Center in Homer.
The fourth-graders from the class of Dave Knudsen and Kelli Stroh were all sporting nervous looks as they prepared for the hands on part of the aptly named "Crab Lab."
The hour and a half course the two classes participated in on Oct. 15 was actually an overview of marine invertebrates, but the icing on the cake was no doubt the up close and personal experience with some of the state's more bizarre looking residents.
"Holy cow," was the collective reaction between Keira Stroh, Leah Johnson, Lisa Krol and Dani Peterson, of Stroh's class, as they all stared, mouth agape, at their specimen crouched in the bottom of a clear bowl filled with water.
Their crab must have been feeling somewhat similarly.
Each group was to study, identify, draw, measure and try and make some observations about their subject.
The girls were all about observations, the other tasks were going to have to take a seat.
Stroh dove right in after their crab, who's battle-fatigue colored shell appeared to form a set of wings, and dwarfed the animal's tiny body, hidden underneath.
As the girls passed their specimen from one another, the look of anticipation grew in Peterson's eyes.
The crab's sharp-tipped legs had hardly landed in her cautiously opened palms before she quickly passed it on to a waiting group member.
"I wasn't scared," she said later. "Just excited."
Like her four group members, she'd never handled a live crab before.
As the group went about trying to identify their crab from hundreds of others listed in the book they were provided, Peterson bombarded her classmate Stroh, who was now doing most of the handling, if the crab was pinching her and if it hurt.
The girls determined their specimen was a butterfly crab, also called an umbrella crab.
They were tipped off by the winglike shape of the little critter's oversized shell.
"Everyone thinks he's gross," Krol said of the crab. "But he's not, he's pretty, he's a butterfly crab."
Peterson, meanwhile, was continually moving in, building her confidence.
She kept putting her hand in the bowl, even going so far as to start to scoop it up from behind as Field had instructed, but at the last second she pulled back.
Finally, with a little more encouragement from her classmate Stroh, Peterson's shaky hand cradled the little crab above the bowl.
With her other hand, she gripped tightly her own wrist, and staring wide-eyed watched the seafloor resident as though it might spontaneously explode to life.
Instead the crab sat still, probably equally as bewildered to be thrust into an airy environment.
Neither Peterson, nor the crab, breathed in those tense few moments, but gradually she relaxed before dunking the crab back into the water so it too could get a little oxygen.
Every hesitancy Peterson had about holding the crab had been washed away and now she couldn't get enough.
After the groups had shared the information they'd gathered on their specimens with the rest of the class, the students were allowed to wander about and investigate some of the other crabs.
It was no surprise that she was the first in line to pick up one of the spiniest-looking subjects of them all, a decorator crab, and in no time had made the rounds, getting up close and personal with all the different critters with no concerns now for waiting pinchers.
For more information visit http://www.islandsandocean.org/
Dante Petri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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