Friday, May 29, 2009

Coastal Ecology Field Trip - 2009

The view from the south side of Horn Island. Tech students in the water.

Camera used was a $11 water-resistant disposable Kodak

I was quite impressed with the people and facilities at the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. A co-worker of mine teaches a summer Coastal Ecology class at Arkansas Tech, and my boss was kind enough to let me tag along with him and his class of budding biologists during their field trip to the Gulf.
   We spent a week on the campus, briefly sleeping in the dorms and eating cafeteria food when we weren't seining for fish and crabs. We had learned how to use the nets in a creek on the Tech campus, but that was in no way adequate preparation for the challenge of holding a seine steady in the ocean.

   The boat trip to Horn Island was definitely a highlight for everyone. During the two-hour trip to the island, several water-spouts were popping out of the dark lingering clouds. In the middle of our journey, the captain stopped the boat and I asked what was going on. Captain Larry said, "That water-spout has the right of way." The dang water tornado was directly in front of the boat, and you could see the bottom swirling out much wider than the middle and top of the spout. I had never seen anything like it before in my life.

   Several dolphins appeared unexpectedly, chasing the trolling net and jumping out of the water alongside the boat. We squealed every time one jumped out of the water.

   The island itself was a pristine and vacant looking piece of paradise. It was also a refuge for the Osprey birds, and there were wicked looking trees scattered about with humongous nests at their tops. It looked like a scene from natural history in years past. Many, MANY years past!

   A few of the students and I had brought our fishing poles, and we caught a fish every time we threw a line in the water. I only caught a catfish, but one student caught a ladyfish. Another student caught something much larger, and we all crowded near him in the water as he fought it. The fish pulled free before he could tow it in, but we had seen it jump out of the water a couple of times before it was liberated. It was white with black stripes, and Captain Larry told us later is was probably a Sheepshead.

   During the trip back, we used the trolling net to catch a multitude of strange sea creatures. I was so fascinated by the Atlantic Brief Squid that I picked one up and help it in my hand. The small pigmented spots on its face, called chromatophores, faded and reappeared so quickly it looked computer-animated. I watched the squid closely, and it began to move its tentacles to reposition itself in my hand. I could feel the tiny suction cups take hold, and then it bit me! I screamed and shook it off my hand. I'm not sure where the poor heavy-headed thing landed, but I wish I had tossed it back into the ocean. Now, it will surely remain pickled in ethanol on the shelves of the Arkansas Tech zoology lab for eternity.

   I had been told there was a famous invertebrate zoologist who taught at the research facility, so I grabbed two of our students and gathered a few jars of unknown jellyfish and we walked over to Dr. Heard's lab. He was incredibly nice. He looked at our jellyfish - which were translucent-looking blobs floating in ethanol - and identified most of them at first glance. He talked nearly non-stop, showed us a few parasites with his microscope, and drew out life cycles of creatures we had never heard of. He let me borrow an expensive plankton net and gave us an armful of posters featuring beautiful line drawings of some of the different shrimp species he had described over the years. The students said he was the most intelligent person they had ever met.

   I did not want to come home. I wanted to go back to Horn Island, with my fishing pole, and sit for a very long time.

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