Stingrays, sponges and snails teach Costa Mesa High students about coastal biodiversity
NEWPORT BEACH — Sey Currie carefully raised a two-sided metal clamp from the bottom of the Upper Newport Back Bay Ecological Reserve. Once up, she and several other students from Costa Mesa High School dumped out its contents and carefully sifted through the mud looking for tiny organisms known as plankton.
The students were convinced plankton would be found because they already had tested the water’s salinity and alkaline levels and its temperature.
“It’s normal, that means plankton can live in there,” Currie, a 16-year-old junior, told her classmates.
Beyond plankton, the students on Tuesday, April 2, also identified little shrimp known as amphipods, cone snails, clams and mussels.
They also found Asian date mussels, an invasive species which they later fed to the octopus in the Back Bay Science Center’s tank.
The data collection was one of several experiments the 27 juniors and seniors participated in during an all-day field trip to the center on Shelter Island. The visit was the last of seven data-gathering trips since October.
All the while, they’ve been working on research projects for their Advanced Placement environmental science class taught by Costa Mesa High teacher Cristen Rasmussen. Topics have focused on biodiversity of plants and animals living within a large watershed near the coast.
The Back Bay reserve provided the perfect habitat for them to study. The area, which is home to salt marsh, mudflat and marine habitats, has much to discover. Large mudflats above high tide are a favorite for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl. Sheltered water provides foraging, spawning and nursery habitat for marine fish.
After they complete their research, the students will develop findings and present them to a group of environmental professionals.
“We’d love for them to become engaged citizens of the community so that hopefully they value the local environment,” said Dyana Pena, an education director for Orange County Coastkeeper. “We want them to take away knowledge and empowerment, so they can protect the planet and the watershed.”
The program was conducted in partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which operates the science center, as well as OC Coastkeeper educators, the Institute for Conservation Research and Education (ICRE) and Project Grow. The $140 cost per student for the program was covered by ICRE.
While Currie and her team looked for plankton and other invertebrates, the class’ second group was out on the water with Dave Meyer, a science aid with the state wildlife agency. There, students threw out a net and dragged it along the bottom of the bay to scoop up fish and other animals.
Once back on shore, Meyer unloaded the net and explained to the students what they found. During the first go-round, they found just a few animals, including a sponge.
Meyer told the students he once saw a film in which a scientist took colored water and sprayed it beneath a sponge.
“The water went inside the sponge and disappeared,” he said. “Then, later, it came out on top. They have to depend on this passive method of getting their food.”
Beau Zachary, 16, said he found that among the most interesting facts he learned Tuesday.
“To me, it sounded like a sponge is a ton of tiny organisms all living together,” he said. “It’s not a thing. You can break it in half and it would be fine. I didn’t think it would be able to choose what it sucks up.”
Earlier Tuesday morning, Zachary got a chance to see multiple bird species — a Canadian goose, an osprey and a great egret.
“This is my favorite class because it’s hands-on learning and the teacher is great,” he said.
Rachael Kricorian, 17, agreed.
“We get to do the work that real scientists do,” she said. “And, we’re getting to see the actual changes we make. It’s hard to stay interested and motivated just by reading textbooks. Hands-on work is eye-opening.”