Posted by: lauraearly | April 24, 2011

Earth Week 2011

Wow, what a week at Sanibel Sea School! Between our two campuses, over 100 different kids experienced the ocean with us this past week, many of them coming back for multiple classes.

One of the most rewarding things to hear from parents is that their kids were so excited about what they learned on their first day at Sanibel Sea School that they want to come back as many days as they can.

This Earth Week, we explored everything from the mangroves to seagrass beds to the sparkling waters of the Gulf. Each day, it seemed, we were presented with something more amazing than the last. I wish I could share with you all the great moments we had this week. Instead, here are some highlights:

Playing like shorebirds in the waves.

On Tuesday, we watched plovers dart in and out of the waves as they pecked around in the sand for food. Once we tried it for ourselves, we realized just how swift those little shorebirds are.

Tulip snail extending its foot.

Wednesday, we got a great look at a gastropod, the tulip snail. Snails can retreat inside their shells, tightly sealing their body inside with the operculum, but this tulip was not shy at all. It was whipping its “foot” around to scare us away, providing a great opportunity to see that shells are made from live animals.

Sea urchin covered in shells.

Almost everywhere we stepped on Thursday were urchins under our feet. At first they were hard to spot because they cover themselves in shells, but once we knew what to look for, they were everywhere!

Seine fishing.

While using the seine net on Friday, we caught a needlefish, a baby pufferfish, some lizard fish, and thousands of tiny larval fish.

Juvenile horseshoe crab.

Finishing up the week on Saturday with a kayak expedition to a seagrass bed, we discovered the array of creatures between the blades including horseshoe crabs, small fish, conchs, whelks, and hermit crabs.

A Native American proverb reminds us that “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, but we borrow it from our children.” Children’s eyes lit up this week as they took a peek into that blue ocean that covers more than 70 percent of our planet. The look on a child’s face as they watch in amazement as a tiny clam buries itself almost instantly in the sand or as they squeal with delight when a manatee comes up for a breath right next to the dock says it all. This is their planet, and they should be able to discover it in as pure a form as we can give it to them for countless generations into the future.


To see more of our adventures from this week, check out our April 2011 at Sx3 Captiva album.

Posted by: lauraearly | April 14, 2011

Bag It: There is no away

Last night, Sanibel Sea School and Big Arts hosted a screening of the Blue Ocean Film Festival Winner, Bag It. Joined by director Suzan Beraza, we enjoyed the film and then had the opportunity to continue the conversation over snacks and drinks.

I think that is Jeb under all those plastic bags...

Bag It takes us along on Jeb Berrier’s journey of discovery of how plastics affect our lives and our planet. Jeb also shows us that it is possible to live a life with less plastic. It is an eye-opening film that makes it hard to ignore that versatile and convenient material that is virtually everywhere on this planet.

Many of the plastics in our lives are only used for a few minutes, or even a few hours, and then are thrown away. Bag It points out, though, “There is no away.” Plastic debris doesn’t disappear. It will take hundreds of years for a plastic bag to break down into microscopic pieces, but even then, it still has not gone away.

I might be going out on a limb here, but I would say that it is now pretty common knowledge that plastic debris in the ocean is a major threat to marine life. However, what is not common knowledge is the solution to that problem. The answer is not just to stop littering. It’s not even to recycle more. We have to start using less, and creating less waste.

The film gives some staggering statistics about the rate that we, as Americans, go through plastics. Single-use disposable plastics, plastics created to be used once and then thrown away, are contributing enormously to the amount of trash we create. Consequently, cutting them out of your life can make an enormous difference. “It doesn’t really change the quality of your life, and it’s not that hard,” Beraza testified.

Plastic shopping bags are an example of a single-use disposable product that can painlessly be eliminated from your everyday life. “It’s a great first step for people to take,” Beraza said about toting reusable bags.

There is no disguising the fact that plastic is a huge, scary problem, but don’t let that discourage you. Take it one step at a time, like Jeb does, and do what you can. Then, give yourself a pat on the back, and know that your actions are helping to ensure a better future for our planet and our society!

Check out the trailer below, and I encourage you to watch the full version. It’s a great film that will change the way you look at plastic.

This coming week, the film is being broadcast on Public Television stations around the country. Find the times for your local station here. You can also find a screening near you through the nationwide Do Something Reel Film Festival.

Bag It Intro from Suzan Beraza on Vimeo.

Posted by: lauraearly | April 9, 2011

Tongue or deadly weapon, Part 2: The harpoon

Harpoons may seem like an instrument of the past, but they are still being used in the ocean today, and in a different way than you might be thinking.

As we explored in our previous blog (Tongue or deadly weapon?), snails have a tongue-like structure covered in tiny teeth, called a radula. The radula helps snails feed in a variety of ways including scraping algae off hard surfaces and drilling holes through other shells.

In cone shells, the radula is a harpoon-launching machine. The tiny teeth are modified into harpoons, two rows of which are manufactured in the radular sack. A tiny duct carries venom to the harpoon tooth. Once a harpoon is spent, a new one moves forward ready for the next attack.

Harpoon Diagram from Seashells of North America, Golden Field Guides.

Cones feast upon marine worms, other snails, and depending on the size of the cone, sometimes fish. The venomous harpoon paralyzes the prey, allowing the snail to more easily devour its meal. The harpoons can also act as defense against octopuses and other things that might try to make a meal out of a cone.

Harpoon Attack from Seashells of North America, Golden Field Guides.

Several dozen species live in the warm waters of Florida and the Caribbean, but the most common to wash up on our shores are the alphabet cone and the Florida cone.

None of the cones found in this area are harmful to humans, but a harpoon from one of the larger species in the Southern Pacific and Indian Oceans can be fatal.


Alphabet Cone Shells

Cone shells are some of the most valuable shells, but remember just like all living animals, they play an important role in their ecosystem. So, its best to leave the living ones right where you find them, and of course, you wouldn’t want to fall victim to a deadly harpoon!

Posted by: Doc Bruce | April 4, 2011

Creepy snake-like things on the beach

About this time of year, the beaches of southwest Florida are invaded by creepy-looking, snake-like things washed up in the wrack line.

These are the egg cases of the lightning whelk (Busycon contrarium).  The long coiled structure – sometimes known as a mermaid’s necklace –  is made of up to 200 individual egg pouches linked to one another.

This entire egg chain is attached to the bottom of the ocean at the smallest end of the egg-case cluster.  During periods of heavy storm action, they are dislodged and washed ashore.  The developing embryos die once the egg cases are heated and dried out in the sun.

Each pouch contains about 30 fertilized eggs and some egg-case clusters can have between 150 and 200 pouches – making for a total number of offspring in the neighborhood of 4000 to 6000!

Early in the spring, the stranded egg cases have embryos in the early stages of development – cut one open and it looks like the inside of a chicken egg, but with 30 tiny yolks, rather than one large one.  Later in the spring, the embryos have developed the earliest stages of their shell, the protoconch. This is the shell these lightning whelks will live in and grow for the rest of their lives.

So if you find a dried creepy, snake-like thing in wrack line, pick it up and have a look.  Then give it a shake, you might find it to be full of the smallest shells you will ever find on the beach – lightning whelk protoconchs.

Posted by: lauraearly | April 1, 2011

Dear Ocean…

Messages to the ocean.

Yesterday was kind of a dreary day on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, but that doesn’t stop us here at Sanibel Sea School! This morning as the wind was howling and dark clouds threatened to soak us to the bone, we scoured the wrack line to see how many different kinds of things the ocean had washed up on the beach.

One of the great things about the ocean is that it is always changing, and everyday the tide leaves a new array of objects on the beach for us to explore. That line of debris on the beach left from the last high tide is what we call the wrack line.

Yesterday, the wrack line was heavily dominated by seagrasses, but we found something else in the wrack line that we weren’t so excited about–trash. Since the wrack line is made up of things that wash up from the ocean, that means trash is floating around in the ocean.

There are several ways that trash finds it way into the ocean, but most of it comes from land. That candy wrapper that gets dropped on the street washes into a storm drain that could empty in a nearby creek that flows into another river that eventually spills out to the ocean. We also experienced how easy it is for the wind to take things out to the ocean when a resort card slipped from someone’s hands on the beach and landed in the water. (Don’t worry, we fished it out.)

"I hope that people lrn that thay shud not liddre."

We brainstormed ways that we could reduce the amount of trash in the ocean and imagined the ocean’s future. As a symbolic gesture we created messages in a bottle to tell the ocean what we will do on its behalf and our hopes for the future. We won’t send this bottle out to sea, but we hope the ocean feels our love!

Some students share their messages in this video:

Posted by: lauraearly | March 22, 2011

Wait, lightning whelks don’t have hands, do they?

No, shells don’t have hands, but they can be either right-handed or left-handed. Gastropods, those creatures we call snails, either spiral to the left or the right.

Most gastropods are right-handed (dextral), but the lightning whelk is left-handed (sinistral). If you find a left-handed shell, it is most likely a lightning whelk because they are one of the only left-handed shells found in Florida. Another great identifying feature are the lightning-like streaks that run down the length of the shell.

Small lightning whelk.

Lightning whelks hatch from egg cases as miniature versions (called protoconchs) of the shells that we find washed up on the beach. As the whelk grows, the shell grows too. Lightning whelks can grow pretty large– some measure longer than a foot!

Whelk egg case.

A live lightning whelk's body

Unlike other gastropods that use their tongue-like structure called a radula to drill into the shells of its prey, the lightning whelk uses its muscular foot and the edge of its shell to pry open oysters and clams.

So, to figure out if your shell is right-handed or left-handed, go ahead and shake hands with it. Hold it with the broad end pointed up and the skinny end pointed toward the ground. If you were going to stick your fingers in the opening with your thumb pointing up and follow the spiral around, which hand would you use? If your left hand goes in, you have found a left-handed shell!

Posted by: Doc Bruce | March 16, 2011

Phone Home from a Seagrass Bed

We recently explored the shallow seagrass beds of Pine Island Sound with the Bryan family.  And, it was a fine morning to explore the ocean.  We encountered many ocean treasures:  A large southern stingray glided past us in knee-deep water – it is a rare treat to watch a large stingray swimming in shallow water.  We found lots of  spider crabs, lightning whelks and other invertebrate seagrass inhabitants.  Then later, we drifted through Redfish Pass with a pod of dolphins as they swam alongside the boat.  But, perhaps the best treat of all was to get to know a big Porcupinefish.

We get up close and personal with a local porcupine puffer.

It swam right up to us and we were able to visit with it for a few minutes.  This fish is the spitting image of the little alien Earth visitor, ET.  It could perhaps be the most personable fish ever.  However, there is more to this critter than just cute looks.

Porcupinefish are intriguing fish.  They inflate themselves to avoid predators, they are covered with large spines which stand up when they inflate and many of them are highly poisonous.  They have toxins known as tetrodotoxins in some of their internal organs – these toxins can be more than 1,000 times more poisonous than cyanide.  Pretty powerful stuff wrapped up in a really cute fish!

Go to the ocean and see what it has to offer; it will change you.

Posted by: lauraearly | March 13, 2011

Tsunami: The ocean takes a deadly shape

What in the world is a tsunami and how does it work?

Essentially, a tsunami is a giant wave moving through the ocean, but it works differently than the waves that crash on our beaches on a regular basis. Let’s explore the difference between the two and how the tsunami can be so devastating.

Wave Diagram from the Office of Naval Research

Before we discuss how a tsunami forms, let’s review some wave terminology. The crest is the highest point on the wave, while the trough is the lowest point on the wave. The wave can be measured by the wavelength, which is the length from crest to crest or from trough to trough, and by the wave height, which is the vertical distance between the crest and the trough. Be careful not to confuse the wave height with amplitude. Amplitude is only half of the wave height. Take a look at the diagram to help clear things up, or check out this resource.

The waves that we are used to, the small breakers that roll onto Sanibel and Captiva beaches everyday, are caused by wind blowing across the surface of the ocean. These waves don’t extend far below the surface, but as they reach shallower water the wave height increases, and they become unstable, breaking onto shore.

On the contrary, tsunamis have a completely different origin. Tsunamis are incorrectly called ‘tidal waves’ because they actually have nothing to do with the tides, but result from an underwater disturbance like an earthquake.

When an earthquake occurs on the ocean floor, the entire water column is displaced and the energy from the earthquake is transferred to the water. Unlike with wind-driven waves, when a tsunami is created, all the water from the surface to the ocean floor is set in motion.

A tsunami is not a single crest, but a series of several crests that radiate out from the disturbance. Out in the open ocean, this wave can travel up to 500 miles per hour, but can go by unnoticed. With wavelengths up to 125 miles and swells not rising more than a few feet above normal sea level, it is easy for a tsunami to sneak past a ship out in the deep, open ocean with out being recognized.

Tsunami Diagram from CSU Geology Department

As this wave moves through the ocean, remember that it has an enormous amount of energy, the energy that was transferred from the earthquake (or other disturbance). Two things can play into the energy that the wave holds- the amplitude and the speed at which the wave is traveling. As the wave approaches shallower water, the wave slows down. To compensate, the wave’s amplitude increases, creating a really tall wave as it reaches shore.

The trough of the wave reaches the coast first and the water recedes much farther than normal. Then the crest plunges ashore, capable of moving water several miles inland. The enormous amount of energy and the sheer volume of water carried by the wave can be devastating to coastal communities, as has been seen by the recent destruction in Japan. See a NASA image of the flooding effects in Japan here. The fact that tsunamis can travel so fast makes them hard to prepare for, but to learn more about how NOAA alerts areas of possible tsunamis, check out this video.

Just another reminder of how powerful the ocean is!

Posted by: lauraearly | March 7, 2011

The adventures of Hermy Dermy and Jelly Belly

Living in the sand or mud between the tides can be quite the adventure. This area, called the soft intertidal, provides a very dynamic environment for its inhabitants. Part of the day they could be flooded with salt water, but in a few hours would be high and dry. Most animals are adapted to live either in the water, or out of the water–not both!

From Bunche Beach, we walked and waded through the intertidal zone to meet some of the super-creatures that deal with these interesting circumstances and to figure out how they do it.

First, we encountered Jelly Belly. Jelly Belly was actually not a single organism, but a sac of eggs rooted into the sand by a marine worm. Seven-year-old Cami’s nickname for the gooey-looking egg case was much more flattering than “sea snot,” which you might also hear it called. The jelly-like substance the eggs are suspended in helps keep them moist if they happen to find themselves out of the water. Stepping gingerly through the water, we saw several Jelly Bellies stuck in the sand, swaying with the gentle movement of the water.


Jelly Belly (worm egg case) in a sample jar.

Hermy Dermy (hermit crab) tries to take refuge in the sand.

Shortly after Jelly Belly, we met Hermy Dermy. Unlike Jelly Belly, Hermy Dermy was on the move. A small hermit crab in a bubble shell, Hermy was able to scurry around, but quickly retreated into the shell when a giant hand came down upon it. Hermit crabs are also common residents of the intertidal zone, and they are able to move in and out with the tide to some degree. All crabs use gills to breathe oxygen from the water, so as long as their gills stay moist they are able to survive out of the water. As we carried Hermy Dermy around in a shell filled with wet sand, he started to sink down into that small amount of sand. Later while digging on a small exposed sandbar, we discovered that even when the sand isn’t covered by water, it’s just below the surface, so that burrowing animals can retreat further into the sand until the water returns.

King's crown pulls its body into its shell when out of the water.

King’s crown conchs were a sharp contrast for our feet from the soft sandy bottom, but we discovered that they have some superpowers of their own. Like other gastropods, king’s crown conchs have a special door called an operculum attached to their muscular foot. They can pull their entire body and a little bit of water into their shell and seal it off with the operculum until they are in the water again. The operculum can also act as a shield from predators.

These are just a few critters that have developed ways to live in and use the constantly changing intertidal. What other amazing adaptations have you encountered in the soft intertidal?

Posted by: lauraearly | March 4, 2011

What can you do to reduce plastic in the ocean?


Plastic Marine Debris photo from Anne of Carversville

Plastic debris in the ocean can be the cause of death for marine animals including dolphins, fish, sea turtles, and sea birds. It is estimated that 80% of the plastic debris in the ocean originated from land sources. Will we ever be able to rid our lives of plastic, and in turn quit adding plastic trash to the oceans?

Last month, I attempted Rodale’s Plastic-Free February challenge, and while I can’t say that I was even remotely successful at forever ridding my life of plastic, the challenge has made me aware of what a giant role plastic has in my life.

Virtually everything I do, from sleeping to eating to bathing, involves plastic in some way. Foods are packaged in plastics. Cleaning supplies come in plastic spray bottles. My shower gel is in a plastic bottle. My alarm clock is made out of plastic. I even use a plastic credit card to purchase most of these things.

When you start to think of going “plastic-free” it can be quite overwhelming. For some things, I can’t even come up with a reasonable non-plastic alternative. Where do you even start?

Since plastic marine debris are a real threat to the ocean community, I decided that reducing my use of single-use disposable plastics is where I need to start, and Sanibel Sea School has taken steps to do this as well. Sanibel Sea School has banned the use of single-use water bottles from our institution. To learn more about why we are so adamant to do so, read our previous blog.

I am already on board with toting my reusable water bottles and my reusable shopping bags, which are the two top ways to reduce our plastic trash as a society.  But I am ready to take the next steps in reducing my plastic waste.

Below, I’ve listed a few of the challenges I came across this past month and some possible solutions, thanks to Beth Terry’s Plastic-Free Life blog. Be sure to share with us how you reduce the amount of disposable plastics in your life.

  • Reusable cloth baggies from Graze Organics

    Plastic zipper-sealed sandwich baggies are my go-to. When I pack a lunch to bring to work or a snack for the beach, it is so easy to put it into one of those little plastic baggies. If I only use half of an onion, the other half usually goes into a baggie. Sometimes I even store non-food things in the baggies. I really like Anchor Hocking’s TrueSeal glass storage containers, and I try to use them as much as possible. Here is a great resource for cloth alternatives to sandwich baggies from My Plastic-free Life. I have added these to my wish list.

  • Food is already packaged in plastic. Many foods come to the store prepackaged in plastic. One way to avoid this is to avoid prepackaged foods. Shop in the produce section and meat and deli counters. Some grocery stores, like Whole Foods, will allow you to bring your own containers to take home your purchases. For example, if you buy a few mahi-mahi fillets instead of putting them on a styrofoam tray wrapped in plastic, you could put them in a glass leftovers container you brought from home. Another great option is to get your food straight from the farm: less packaging and less transport! Check out local vendors at the Sanibel Farmer’s Market, or a farmer’s market near you.
  • Almost all of my toiletries and cosmetics are in plastic containers. My soap, deodorant, shampoo, sunscreen, and many other things that I consider essential all come in plastic containers. Hand soaps, bath soaps, and shampoos are all available in the form of a bar and are a good alternative the liquid version in the plastic bottle. Try this Burt’s Bees shampoo bar, or search for other brands at local stores. If you are feeling adventurous, you could forego shampoo altogether. (I have attempted this a few times, but haven’t been able to follow through, yet.) Living in Southwest Florida, I cannot condone forgoing sunscreen as well, but I can suggest wearing protective clothing so that you need less sunscreen. And as for deodorant, I hear that baking soda works wonders.

Remember that in the name of conservation, every little bit will make a difference. It is hard to make such drastic lifestyle changes as eliminating the use of plastics, but don’t get discouraged. Start small–find some aspect of your life that you can change, and go with it!

Challenge yourself to make better choices for the future of our oceans!

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