Rivers to Reefs

by Michelle Riley

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary

In June, Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary hosted the 13th annual Rivers to Reefs Workshop for Educators in association with UGA’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, the Georgia Aquarium and Gordon State College. Cathy Sakas, chair of the Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and Kim Morris-Zarneke, manager of education programs at Georgia Aquarium, served as the primary leaders of the workshop, with assistance from Theresa Stanley of Gordon State College.  Michelle Riley from Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary served as communications lead.

Rivers to Reefs is an educational expedition for teachers, focused on Georgia’s Altamaha River watershed. During the six-day trip, 16 Georgia science teachers canoed the Oconee, Ocmulgee and Altamaha rivers into the Sapelo estuary, crawled through salt marshes, traveled to Gray’s Reef and trawled the Wilmington River. They learned and explored the connections between the watershed and the ocean.

Teachers Marilyn Kinney (foreground) and Candace Bridges collect water samples in Flat Shoals Creek. Photo: Michelle Riley

Teachers Marilyn Kinney (foreground) and Candace Bridges collect water samples in Flat Shoals Creek. Photo: Michelle Riley

The week was packed with activities that most teachers never experience, beginning with a behind-the-scenes orientation at Georgia Aquarium, and it included an offshore trip to Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary aboard the first working research vessel the educators had ever seen close up, Skidaway Institute’s R/V Savannah. In between, the group explored creeks, waterfalls, rivers and estuaries, and saw an abundance of flora and fauna. They frequently stopped to collect water samples, conduct water quality tests and record environmental factors to determine the overall health of the creeks and streams that flow to the river system. As the week progressed, the teachers developed an understanding of the profound influence the waters flowing through the Altamaha River watershed have on the health of Gray’s Reef and were inspired to teach their students about environmental responsibility and ocean literacy.

Always a highlight of the workshop, the marsh crawl on Sapelo Island was a memorable  experience. The group sloshed on their bellies through the thick dark mud to learn why marshes are considered some of the most important and productive habitats on earth. The estuary that encompasses the salt marsh, where the freshwater from the Altamaha River mixes with the saltwater of the Atlantic, is one of the largest estuary systems on the Atlantic coast.

Waters were calm for the voyage out to Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary on the R/V Savannah under the command of Captain John Bichy, marine superintendent at UGA Skidaway Institute. With extensive assistance from the R/V Savannah crew, the teachers conducted water quality tests at three separate points in the ocean. Meanwhile, the ship’s crew pulled a trawl net through the ocean at midwater depth and brought in many interesting fish, a large pile of Georgia shrimp and a handful of sharks, including a hammerhead and a small Atlantic sharpnose shark. During the trip, the teachers were delighted when they were treated to lessons by Professor Marc Frischer of Skidaway Institute on black gill in shrimp and on pelagic tunicates called doliolids. While in the sanctuary, the crew deployed an underwater camera to allow the teachers to see the reef and its sea creatures in real time, without getting wet.

A group shot on board the R/V Savannah.

A group shot on board the R/V Savannah.

On the final day of Rivers to Reefs, the teachers boarded UGA’s R/V Sea Dawg, a smaller vessel used by the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium, a unit of the UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. Captain John “Crawfish” Crawford and Anne Lindsay, associate director for marine education, conducted a field class during the two-hour trawling voyage in the Wilmington River. The teachers recorded the catch for research purposes and ended their trip with a wrap-up by Frischer and the expedition leaders, before scattering across Georgia with great memories and a treasure trove of experiences to pass on to their students this fall.

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