Marine Critters: Microscopic to Enormous

Marine Critters: Microscopic to Enormous

Morning comes too soon for some of us after being rocked to sleep aboard the Exy Johnson last night, but we must catch our Catalina Island ferry where we hope to see our first sea creatures….and we do. Dolphins swim alongside and grey whales spout in the distance as we ride along in sunshine on calm seas.

On Catalina we clamber over slippery rocks covered with red algae (plocamium) called sea carrot. Anyone feeling a bit hungry takes a nibble, describing the taste as “a carrot in soy sauce.” We are in search of Pacific sized tide pools to catch eels and octopuses and anything else we can study without endangering. We drop our “hooks” (binder clips) into teeming tide pool waters and hope for good luck. In the beginning we are a bit grossed out with the fish bait, but soon we become old hands at handling and baiting our fish clips, anxious to collect specimens for study.

CIMI eels are sneaky and strong. One was as long as James was tall. They steal our bait, but drop off of our hooks before we can get them into our collecting pail. We can see their fangs as they try to get our bait by biting the fish right off the clip. One swims right over Mike’s foot, easily escaping our grasp. Even a bright orange garibaldi tries to steal our bait.

An octopus wraps around the fish bait at the end of our line. We know we have it because it caresses the bait with its arms, but when we pull it up it must realize that something is “fishy” and lets go. Octopuses are smart so it knew something was up and did not attempt to grab our bait again.

We tuck in Algae and Invertebrate Lab before dinner, getting an up close and personal with green, red, and brown algae. We meet sea stars, sea hares, sea urchins, sea anemone, an octopus, nudibranchs, lobsters, and other tide pool dwellers, which we now can see long enough to study and draw. There are abalone shells like the live one we saw stuck tightly to a rock in the tide pool so we can admire the beautiful inner shell’s glistening metallic, pinks and purples.

Moonshine reflects on the calm waters of Toyon Bay at the end of our first day at Catalina Island Marine Institute. Even though we are tired and full of learning from our day’s adventures, we linger with TJ, our Cimi teacher, in the Marine Mammal Hall where we study skeletons of seals, sea lions, whales, dolphins, walrus, and all manner of marine life. Devon becomes a toothed whale and Anna (assisted by Ella) becomes a baleen whale. Simulating how toothed whales eat, Devon may only devour one Cheerio (squid in real life), using only his teeth, at a time. As our baleen whale, Anna and Ella may slurp up as many tiny Cocoa Krispies as possible, but must spit out the milk before swallowing the tiny food morsels on which they live. Our results suggest baleen whales have the advantage. Anna and Ella consume more than Devon suggesting that baleen whales might have the advantage in the wild.

We stroke a velvety sea otter pelt and can finally truly understand why Russians and Aleuts came to the Channel Islands in the early 1800s and took thousands of pelts. Sea otters have 1 million hairs per each square inch of their pelts. Magically, at the end of the evening we even become seals and sea lions to demonstrate how they move. We are mother and baby seal lions calling to each other to simulate the cacophony of a seal rookery…even louder than a pack of Phoenix kids having fun. It must be bedtime!

Day 6 Cimi Friday kayak & home

Day 6 Cimi Friday kayak & home

None of us can believe today is our last at CIMI. The week has flown, packed with marine science, challenge, adventure, and fun. TJ is the BEST Marine Science instructor across the 7 seas! All Phoenix kids enthusiastically concur. However, the week is not quite over. Kayaking awaits us this morning. First we do Kayak Calisthenics to practice how to hold our paddles and learn proper paddling technique. With our partners, we carry our kayaks across the beach to water’s edge, climb aboard and get a friendly push into the surf from TJ.

On the way back from Torqua Reef, TJ challenges us to show our strength and concentration. We all switch places with our paddling partners with ease. Then we switch kayaks with another set of kayakers and stay dry! Silly TJ orders us to stand up, one of us at the bow, one at the stern, and sing a love song. You should hear us all! The final challenge before we could jump into 100’of gloriously clear Pacific Ocean for the last time is to hang 10 from the bow of our kayak. We ALL do it successfully and with style!

Mason: I dip my paddle into the cool, morning water. My kayak glides across the surface breaking the small ripples in the sea. Rocky cactus covered mountains tower over me. Sleeping boats bob in the open ocean. This morning seems too good to be true.

Harper: “ICEBERG!” someone shouts as 2 kayaks collide! I look ahead and see what looks like a game of bumper cars being played! Kayaks are crashing and uncontrollable laughter is coming from both sides! Meanwhile my partner and I are taking our time looking below us to see what is going on underneath us in the marine world! We cannot see many fish from here, but when a sea lion swims below us, it’s pretty hard to miss!

We say goodbye to Catalina and TJ as we board the ferry to Long Beach. TJ and the other CIMI instructors salute us all as we leave the pier by catapulting themselves into the water, each with a crazy style just for us, leaving us smiling and laughing. Although we are leaving a magical week behind, our memories will be with us forever.

All of our memories are treasured, but one we can all agree is the craziest is wrestling our wetsuits…on and off.

We could all tell Devon’s story….we lived it, too.
I exit the frost-biting water and dart to the Dive Deck thinking that will be my safe haven, only to rip my wetsuit shirt off and feel as if my chest is being waxed. I tug my booties off and feel relief, but I know that the battle is just beginning. I look down to see my spandex-like pants. I know this will be a war, but you know what they say, “The harder the battle the sweeter the victory!” I yank at the demon-like pants whose sole purpose is to inflict pain. At first my pants slide down my legs, but the ankles are a different story. I pull and pull, but they just don’t move. Thankfully, I see a figure in the shape of Mike. He rips my suit off and I am free of the pain of my wet suit. I am greeted by hot chocolate and, I have to say, “Victory is sweet!”

Goodbye Catalina Island…..for now.

Day 5 CIMI Thursday, Feb. 1 Back Side Adventure

Day 5 CIMI Thursday, Feb. 1 Back Side Adventure

Thanks to Mistal and Mike, and TJ’s magic, Phoenix kids are the only school group, ever, to get to go to the island’s back side. Into the SUVs we scramble, and up, up, around the winding switchbacks and over the top of the ridge we go. As we descend to the other side we see the wide Pacific breaking on the beach below.

Billowy clouds roll in over the water sending blankets of fluffy clouds sneaking around the mountains enveloping them in white. Phoenix kids hike up the steep, rocky trail ascending through the clouds until we look down on the wooly coverlet below, hiding the pounding waves from view. Higher we climb until we reach the ridgeline and the official Trans-Catalina Trail that takes us along the top of Catalina Island.

Mason’s words takes us along the Trans-Catalina trail over the backbone of Catalina’s rugged and steep mountains.
Scorching hot sun beats down on me from behind. Navigating my way through pure pain-inducing cacti and climbing the steep mountain trails make my legs ache and turns my mouth as dry as the sun-baked dirt under my feet. As we climb up to even ground we find a ripe, red prickly pear. The fruit splits under the force of a sharp rock striking it. My mouth begins to water. The sweet juice and moist seeds of the prickly pear linger in my mouth. What a delicious adventure.

Some of us leave the group to hike even further along Catalina’s ridgeline and find sweet prickly pear juice to refresh our parched throats. Others return to the sea to search for kelp as we snorkel along Whale Tail, an outcrop named for its shape between Shark Harbor and Little Harbor. We are lucky to find kelp as well as Garibaldi, an octopus and a sea lion in the murky waters. A few stay behind to enjoy watercoloring a journal spread page under the warm sun and reflect on our wonderful day on the “back side.”

Under the light of a waning moon, we gather around the crackling campfire, soaking up its warmth, appreciating everything that we have done this week. We read our favorite writing and share high points of our stay at CIMI, with TJ and each other. We have all had the same experiences but we have such varied high points. We listen intently to TJ’s ghost story, and wonder if we will meet the two red-headed children that are said to roam the camp as ghosts. We enjoy the camaraderie of being together on our last night. TJ breaks out marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers….we break out in smiles all around. Too soon our fire is doused and we walk quietly through the dark to our dorms. The moon will set and tomorrow’s early sun will rise over the ocean.

Night into Day
Shimmering dots of blazing plasma
Melt my face,
Pulling me to the stars,
But I continue to look.
A murderer runs through the sky
Killing our Blue Moon
And dashing off.
Blood Moon bleeds all night.
Sun creeps up,
Doing the Moonwalk

Day 4 CIMI Wednesday, Jan 31, Finding Plankton

Day 4 CIMI Wednesday, Jan 31, Finding Plankton

Tonight we swim with the plankton that, hopefully, will sparkle and glow for us. First, however, we must see who are to be our swim partners this evening (our planktonic ones, that is). In the Plankton Lab we observe phytoplankton and zooplankton under microscopes. These are not like our own microscopes, but ones we WISH to have at school. They have screens! Whatever drifts in the tiny wells on the slides is thousands of times bigger than life and in living technicolor, on monitors in front of our eyes, easy to see and draw. Each tiny slide sample contains hundreds of plankton. It’s mind-boggling to imagine the numbers of microscopic plankton in our seas that support all life on Earth!

On to the float at the end of the pier we trek. Armed with data collecting equipment we test the water for salinity, determine the turbidity and depth of the water, and dredge up samples of the ocean floor to examine what is thriving in the sand. Data is a scientist’s lifeblood, but collecting it, at least at CIMI, can be the most fun!

We are now considered experienced snorkelers after our Orientation Snorkel yesterday. We get into our wetsuits more quickly, and take a moment for sheer pleasure before heading back into the sea. Nobody wants to stop jumping off the float into the clear waters below, scattering baitfish and waving to an occasional Garibaldi or Kelp Fish. Even a pelican joins us, but it is there for lunch, not pleasure. However, we must also be on our way to more serious pursuits like our friend the pelican. We don fins and masks and once again become part of Catalina Island’s underwater world to observe and learn.

James and Julia take us underwater with them.
Julia’s first snorkel ever: I don’t know what to do. One side of me says, “GIVE UP!” The other side says, “GO ON!” Wavy Garibaldies swim slowly under me guarding their rocky homes. I gather myself together and lower my head into the water. I can do this if I try. Phoenix is not about giving up. Excitement rushes through me again. I am proud!

James: Algae-battered ropes extend to the murky depths. Sea hares idle atop their boulders ignoring our curiosity. Drowsy leopard sharks wind their way through the water glancing up at us “land creatures.” Now I have proof that heaven is a place on Earth.

As night falls, we return to Dive Deck to suit up once again. This time we are definitely speedy. We have subdued those ornery suits and zip into them in record time. Armed with a snorkel safety light that twinkles above the water and a dive flashlight, we each moonwalk backwards across the beach and into the sea with our partner. All together, we swim off in search of nocturnal organisms and bioluminescence. The moon is full and lights up the ocean so we wonder if we will be able to see the glowing phytoplankton that we seek. Not to worry, even though we see nothing at first, as soon as we switch our lights off and swish our hands through the water, we are surrounded in every direction by sparks of white and green. It’s a magical phenomenon only Mother Nature can provide.

Ella takes us into the night waters.
Do I dare look down? “SHARK!” This is what I have been waiting for! I see a sneaky leopard shark emerge from the darkness. Soon after 40 more follow. Stingrays lurk in the depths. My heart thumps as I look under into a midnight paradise. My hand waves in front of my face revealing bioluminescent plankton not seen in broad daylight.

As we head back, TJ dives to the bottom and surfaces with a thorn back ray, depositing it gently on the safety float for all of us to see. We get to touch it and marvel at its silky-rough skin, depending on which way we run our finger over the flat fin. Soon we release it unharmed to bury itself in the sand at the bottom.

Getting out of our wetsuits is the fastest yet…..it is chilly and we are anxious to get to the delicious hot cocoa awaiting us in the Dive Shop. Filled with warmth on the inside and ready to rest our tired muscles, we say goodnight to the full moon and head to bed.

From Sea to Sky: Wednesday, Jan 30

From Sea to Sky: Wednesday, Jan 30

Silly Californians, they think it’s chilly. We love the 85 degree days and 65 degree nights. It’s a perfect morning for snorkeling. We are so excited! It’s our orientation snorkel. I wonder why we have to have an orientation because we have been practicing with Mike and Mistral in swimming for the past few weeks. We are experts already!

It quickly becomes clear why we, too, need the orientation….for putting on our wetsuits and snorkel gear. On the Dive Deck, we look like a bunch of silly seals wriggling, twisting, and turning to get our wetsuit pants up, to squeeze into our wetsuit tops and vests, to pull on our booties and hoods, and then to get our masks and snorkels placed properly. We learn that the tighter our wetsuits are, the warmer we will be, so we squeeze and tug until we are zipped up tight. Finally, we march down the beach and plunge into the water, just to see how it feels. We still are not quite ready. Back to the beach we go to put on our flippers and then moon walk slowly backwards into the water once again. NOW we are ready. Taking a moment to circle up and float together, we listen to TJ’s final words of wisdom, then, with our partners, we follow TJ to an underwater adventure full of leopard sharks, stingrays, kelp sea bass, kelp fish, octopus, garibaldi, skates, and abalone. Little did our Phoenix snorkelers know that they were being escorted by a lone cormorant, floating along, diving when they did, keeping a watchful eye on our kids.

CIMI’s Fish Lab is like being on dry land, yet in the waters off the beach. Fish in all forms swim in the tanks lining the walls. We come eye-to-eye with our individual spirit fish, the one with which we share a mystical connection since meeting it on Catalina Island. Calling to us across the concourse were leopard sharks, horned sharks, angel sharks, stingrays, and a lonely crab trying to avoid a hungry shark. We gently touch the swimming creatures in the tank and marvel at the feel of their “skin,” soft in one direction, rough in the opposite. The opportunity to touch these sharks is a true privilege.

As darkness descends upon us, we set off up the mountain on Shrine Hike to get closer to the stars. Looking up to the heavens and down to the sea, we listen to TJ lead us from star to star of the Winter Circle the brightest stars in our winter sky. At the center of the Winter Circle, is Orion’s bright red star, Betelgeuse, and Orion’s brightest, the blue-white star, Rigel. Aldebaran, Taurus’ fiery eye, Capella, the goat star that is actually 2 stars like our sun that we see together, Procyon and Sirius the dog stars of Canis Minor and Canis Major, Castor and Pollux, Gemini’s twin stars, make up the remaining brightest stars that circle the moon above us tonight. TJ weaves us tales, as moonshine envelops us, into a song of the stars for us to dream about tonight.

Anna and Harper turn our night into poetry.
Fluorescent moon glistens off the sea,
Sounds of sea lions echo in my head,
Salty ocean scents invade my nose,
Wind calmly sways the bushes around me,
Stars welcome me to the calm night.

Moon glowing above,
Silvery light beaming down,
Notions of serenity washing over me,
Whispers of wind, the only noises to be heard,
All worries gone with the tide.