Flotsam not jettisoned
Has anyone ever returned something valuable to you that you didn’t know you'd lost? Well, with a stroke of luck, some keen eyes, and a bit of detective work, a 2-inch temperature data recorder made an unplanned trip from Padilla Bay to the Dungeness Spit, only to be found and returned for the holidays.
During the past few years, research staff have been studying the variability of water temperatures in Padilla Bay eelgrass beds to better understand the growth conditions of our two eelgrass species, Zostera marina and Zostera japonic
a. We place dozens of small temperature recorders throughout the bay where the devices record temperatures every 15 minutes all year long. Padilla Bay researchers walk out during low tides to put devices in the intertidal beds, and use divers in subtidal locations. The recorders are fastened with zip ties to small screw-type anchors or PVC pipes, and left out to collect data for an entire year. Then they’re collected and brought back to the lab for analysis.
Predictably, critters sometimes stumble across these instruments and “investigate” them too aggressively. The zip tie that held this recorder to its anchor was twisted and gnarled in a way that suggests a large crab was the probably the vandal behind this release. Whatever the suspected creature’s motivation, sometime in late November 2018, the temperature recorder was set adrift from the subtidal eelgrass beds of Padilla Bay.
Unbeknown to the research staff, the recorder floated from Padilla Bay and washed up some 65 miles away on the shoreline of Dungeness Spit in Sequim, WA, where it was collected by a volunteer during a beach cleanup. Placed in a pile of discarded plastics and marine debris, the tiny red flashing light on the temperature logger caught the eye of a staff member from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and was plucked out of the waste pile. Another staff member recognized the little device, including its significance, and called the manufacturer to see if they could track down where it came from. The serial number of the temperature recording device was just visible enough through the milky plastic housing to track down who purchased the device, and the mystery was solved!
On Dec. 12, 2018, one of our research staff received a call: “Hello. This might sound weird, but I have the contact information from an individual who…” (PAUSE:
Could any conversation opener be more exciting and anxiety-making?) Padilla Bay Researcher: “Umm, I’m sorry, could you please repeat that?”
Caller: “This might sound weird, but I have the contact information from an individual who has found a data recorder that I traced to you.”
Onset, the company who manufactures the data recorders, put Padilla Bay staff in contact with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and the recorder was on its way back home, this time by mail. Case solved!
Kids on the Beach
As a member of the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve education team, I never wonder if the work I do matters. However, I am sometimes curious if I’m making positive change in the community. This spring, I had such an experience. I was fortunate enough be part of a hands-on science education program known as Kids on the Beach (KOTB). Padilla Bay is one of 10 collaborating organizations behind the program, funded through the Skagit Marine Resource Committee and coordinated with the SeaDoc Society.
Through KOTB, roughly 100 eighth-grade students conducted research with guidance from local experts, citizen scientists, tribal elders, and educators. Students from two school districts participated: those from La Conner Middle School studied the effects of pocket estuary preservation on fish populations and water quality at Lone Tree Point while middle school students from Conway School District in Mount Vernon studied the effects of beach enhancement on fish populations at Fidalgo Bay.
I've been involved in quite a few hands-on science programs, and I can say that KOTB is truly special. For one thing, the project does not frame science as the only tool for learning about a place. On the day I met with KOTB students, we compared a scientific study with indigenous ways of knowing. We discussed the strengths and weaknesses of each approach. Later, as students met on tribal land to collect their data, the work started only after an elder from the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community spoke to the group of La Conner students and an elder from the Samish Indian Nation talked to the Conway School students. Each elder shared a personal story about the importance of the place the students would be studying. In my experience, it is regretfully rare for science programs to include cultural components.
The second thing that impressed me about KOTB is the program gives students an introduction to the scientific process that is as genuine as possible. In just three weeks, the students went from creating research proposals to presenting their findings to their peers and members of the scientific community. The students took leadership roles through every step in the process. They designed the experiments, complete with their own budgets and questions to be studied. Each class was asked to submit several experiment proposals, which were graded by a panel to see which ones would be awarded resources to conduct the research. Students then collected the data, interpreted it, and presented their findings in a symposium.
This is a lot to ask of the eighth-graders, especially when they also happen to be studying for their state tests. But the students met the challenge. During the symposium, they talked about the quality of their data and the implications of what it means in their community. It was clear some were thinking like scientists and enjoying it. Even the students who sometimes struggled were proud of their achievements. KOTB students got a real taste of field biology and learned lessons about the importance of collaboration and biodiversity. For many participants, the program was likely a formative experience. Perhaps they don’t see it now, but in looking back, I think many are going to be thankful for the experience.