We often hear people complaining about the “younger generation.” They are often portrayed as aimless, self-centered and too connected to their electronic devices to pay attention to what is happening right in front of them.
This week we wrapped up the second week of our Marine Science Summer Camp for teenagers. This is the fifth year of the camp, and every year I am amazed at the energy, interest and enthusiasm for learning that these young people display. They are truly interested, ask endless questions, marvel at the creatures we find and show a creative side that I know I didn’t have at that age.
They interact with Jacksonville University marine science faculty and students, along with St. Johns Riverkeeper staff, and do hands-on experiential learning that allows them to really get immersed in the subject.
Northeast Florida is a treasure trove of marine experiences just waiting to be explored. The camp offers the students a chance to get out and experience the St. Johns River and our coastal resources. I am always surprised at how many have never been on the St. Johns River. Yes, they have been over and around it, but never on it. Seldom have they been in it. So we pull seines, throw cast nets and pull plankton tows to show them what is in the river. They get wet and dirty and love it!
Seining is the process of pulling a long net with about a quarter-inch mesh through the water to collect the fish, shrimp and crabs that live there. We sein in the St. Johns River, along the beaches and in the inlets north of the river. Students see firsthand the multitude of organisms that make up the food web. We are careful to not keep the animals out of the water very long and to return them to the water as soon as everyone has seen them. Students are careful to limit their impact on the environment.
Cast netting is both a science and an art form. It’s science in the sense that the circular nets have lead weights along the edge of the mesh. When thrown properly, the net will settle quickly into the water and fall to the bottom, all the while catching anything in its path. Often used to catch bait, cast nests are also a great sampling device to collect marine life. The art form comes as the properly thrown cast net spreads out into a beautiful circle before it hits the water. It is so much fun to watch the students learn to cast net. The laughter at the ugly first toss that gives way to cheers and high fives when the net opens into that perfect (OK, almost perfect) circle is contagious.
This year, we retrieved some reef balls and bags of oyster shells we had placed in the river last year. Reef balls are small concrete structures that provide marine life a place to grow on, attach to or hide in. Oyster bags are, as the name implies, a collection of oyster shells in a plastic mesh bag that also allows marine life, especially oysters and barnacles, a place to call home.
The students were able to examine the plant and animal life, with lots of wiggly worms and tiny crabs, under a microscope. The excitement of first-time discovery was electric.
The students come from a wide variety of backgrounds; some go to public schools, some to private and some are home-schooled. Some need help paying tuition. But they bond quickly, accept one another for who they are and work together on projects as though they had been lifelong friends.
I’m not worried about our future. It is in fine hands.
Ask River Life
What is the status of the drifter that JU deployed in late February?
“Wilson” is alive and well at the moment. He drifted into the Gulf Stream, did a large loop in the North Atlantic and is now heading northeast toward England. You can track its progress at http://www.nefsc.noaa.gov/drifter/drift_jml_2015_1.html, or just search NOAA Drifters JU. A blog about this student-led project is at http://jenniferjessicabuo.wix.com/judrifterbuoy. This is an excellent demonstration of water how from the St. Johns River mixes with ocean water on a grander scale than we might have originally imagined.
River Life runs the last Friday of each month in The Florida Times-Union. E-mail A. Quinton White, executive director of Jacksonville University’s Marine Science Research Institute, with questions about our waterways at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the MSRI, visit ju.edu/msri.