Education on the waves

ESCANABA – When the Inland Seas Education Association’s schooner Inland Seas set sail on Little Bay de Noc Wednesday, the manifest was full of eager faces who would return to port as scientists.

The ISEA programs, including the Making the Great Lakes Great Sail held Wednesday, are more than just an opportunity for participants to board the 77-foot, gaff-rigged schooner. Passengers are active participants in everything from hoisting sails and steering the 45 ton ship to trolling for fish and testing water quality.

“Our mission is to promote stewardship of the Great Lakes through hands-on science education,” said Emily Shaw, science lead instructor.

Inland Seas has been making the voyage from its base in Suttons Bay, north of Traverse City, to Escanaba for 20 years. Over that period, the ISEA has researched and documented changes in the quality water and ecology of Little Bay de Noc.

“We find that you have a wide diversity of phytoplankton and zooplankton in your water and those organisms are indicators of your water quality,” said Sally Somel, water chemistry instructor.

After a few young sailors hoisted a fine net to collect samples of plankton, the small plants and animals present in the water that make up the base of the Great Lakes food chain, groups of participants took turns below deck to view some of the water’s smallest creatures under a microscope.

“Every year (that) we come we like to note if there’s changes. You have probably the most abundance of plankton that we sample in Northern Lake Michigan,” said Somel.

Despite water quality and plankton populations painting a picture of the local waters being healthier than much of Lake Michigan, trolling the lake returned only zebra mussels and round gobies – both invasive species – for the crew and sail participants.

While round gobies eat zebra mussels, the small, bug-eyed fish themselves have a negative impact on the lake’s ecosystem and have become the primary fish caught in the ISEA’s trolling efforts throughout Lake Michigan in the past few years.

“Round gobies are an aggressive fish, so what they will actually do is they’ll take our native fish and they’ll actually take over their feeding grounds. So they’ll move them off their feeding grounds and move them into deeper waters. They’ll also move them off of their spawning grounds and eat their eggs,” said Frank Simkins, fish instructor, adding that gobies spawn three to four times a year while native fish only spawn once.

Other scientific activities on the ship included dredging the bottom of the lake and searching in the sediment for benthos organisms – organisms that live in the lake bed – testing the pH and oxygen content of the water, and gauging weather and lake conditions.

“We know we have an interested student the closer they get to the sample,” said Sue Chrosek, benthos instructor, as one young student leaned over a petri dish to examine midge larvae that were found at the bottom of the lake.

The Inland Seas provided the participants a unique opportunity to perform experiments and observe the Great Lakes ecosystem out on the water, but the schooner itself gave sail participants a view into the history of transportation and shipping on the Great Lakes.

After a lesson on the anatomy of the ship and explanations of the signals used to tell other boats that the ship was a research vessel, participants on the sail helped with the operation of the ship by hoisting the anchor, raise the sails, and steering.

For more information about the Inland Seas Education Association visit www.schoolship.org.