The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Heidi Zemach
For The LOG 

Field trip marks 20 years of marine science program


Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

Youngsters along with the Kenai Fjord Tour's Marine Science Explorer Program explore the seawater tank, filled with invertebrates.

Eleven Seward area Connections homeschool students of all ages and their parents, and 18 Cook Inlet Academy third and fourth grade students, siblings, teachers and chaperones gathered in the main square of Small Boat Harbor on the morning of May 1.

Led by a handful of Kenai Fjords Tour interpreters, they eagerly marched aboard the Kenai Fjords Tours' cruise vessel Alaskan Explorer. The tour boat was soon to become their most beautiful classroom as they set sail to experience and learn about some of the fascinating nature all around them.

This marks the 20th anniversary of the KFT's Marine Science Explorer Program, which to date has entertained and educated 44,000 students during the spring-summer season, said Leslie Jacoby KFT's education coordinator. Jacoby was there at the program's inception, along with Madelyn Walker, Jamie Pringle and Carol Marshall, and ran it for the first decade before leaving to raise her baby Lydia. Today, her daughter, whom she homeschools with Connections, was on board.

The program, which started up again recently will see another 2,000 Alaska children by the end of the season, Jacoby said.

Thursday's interesting sights included a blissfully relaxed-looking sea otter, sea lions sunning themselves in their rocky haul outs, woofing and competing with one another for dominance; seabirds such as common murres, cormorants, a few lone puffins and flocks of kittiwakes flying near their cliffs in patterns that warned of a predator nearby – a bald eagle. They would see grey and humpback whales passing by and feeding. One humpback breached in front of them. The most fun, however, probably were the pods of black and white Dall's porpoise, which raced alongside the Explorer, flashing and leaping out of the water as they raced the vessel homewards at more than 25 mph.

"We've been seeing a lot of whales, humpback and orcas, both transients and residents, and we've seen a few gray whales. A lot of the migratory birds are coming back," Jacoby said. "We're starting to see a few puffins here and there, but a lot of murres and kittiwakes. Yes, it's a very fun time of year to be out here every day and seeing this place wake up."

The Explorer's captain, Mark Lindstrom, stopped and rested in sheltered coves along the way long enough for each of four different classroom lessons to run through, so the students wouldn't be distracted by too many outdoor wonders. In four groups, the students rotated through classes on the specialized adaptations of marine mammals; seawater analysis; plankton identification; and Resurrection Bay's unique deep water fjord estuary ecosystem.

Lessons included trips on deck to examine the critters captured in the onshore touch tank, to tow a fine-meshed plankton net in the bay, and to collect a water sample to examine its content's salinity, density and acidity.

"The plankton are already starting to cycle," said Seward's own Meghan O'Leary, who is entering her first season with KFT's marine science program as an instructor, and her second season as a deck hand. O'Leary first attended the program over a decade ago while on a school field trip. She recently received her biology degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The new instructor was almost as enthusiastic at the discoveries as the youngsters were, exclaiming as they peered at the various plankton specimens through their microscopes and identified them. O'Leary will witness all of the changes in the micro marine-organisms that they can catch with their fine-meshed tow as the season progresses. "Last week we saw Coscinodiscus, a type of phytoplankton, and now more recently we're starting to see jellyfish and fish eggs. Last week we weren't getting any of those. Today we found or first sea urchin larvae of the season, so that's kind of cool."

Another hit was the tank filled with miniature sea critters including a sculpin, leather star and sun star that Ranger Luke Rosier helped scoop out of the ocean seawater. The Seward Boys & Girls Club, along with Seward artist Justine Pecuhzal painted the tank's cover in a special marine theme for the program's 20th-year anniversary.

Heidi Zemach | For The LOG

One of the humpback whales seen by students on a field trip with Kenai Fjords Tour's Marine Science Explorer program.

All participants were delighted by sightings of a grey whale feeding nearby in the vicinity of a humpback. But they were saddened by the sight of a humpback whale entangled in a line, and dragging it and a floating buoy behind it through the ocean at Cape Resurrection. Telling the students that the whale was probably already stressed enough, Captain Lindstrom turned the Explorer away from the whale, and assured everyone that he would contact the Alaska SeaLife Center, which had a rescue team which sometimes helps untangle marine mammals in similar situations.

Meanwhile, Kenai Fjords Tours is looking forward to another promising 40th season, said General Manager Ron Wille. The company, owned by CIRI Alaska Tourism Corporation, a subsidiary owned by Cook Inlet Regional Native Corporation, has added a third 82.5-foot catamaran, the M/V Castillo Voyager, to its fleet. The catamarans are 40 percent more fuel efficient than the older vessels, Wille said. KFT also recycles all used motor oil, disposes of waste from the vessels at the Seward Harbor dock, rather than in the ocean, recycles at all its facilities, and has switched to light timers and energy-efficient bulbs at all locations.


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