Students in a Ketchikan High School ocean science class had a unique field trip a couple weeks ago. They went out on the school-owned training boat to nearby Ward Cove, performed some chemical tests and watched a live video feed of the cove’s murky, desolate bottom.
On a cloudy, brisk, somewhat windy day, as the school year winds down, some maritime training students practice running the school-owned Jack Cotant as a Kayhi Ocean Science class rides along to Ward Cove for a day of investigation.
“Oceanography is one of two ocean science classes at Kayhi,” said Ocean sciences teacher Julie Landwehr. “We have marine biology and oceanography. We study a lot of the physical
characteristics of the ocean, things like currents.
This is the one big field trip for Landwehr’s class of mostly seniors. They’ve gotten outside for other tests closer to home, with weekly phytoplankton monitoring at the docks, and keeping an eye out for algae blooms.
But this trip lets them apply more of the skills they’ve learned in class, and in a different location. Ward Cove is interesting because it’s the site of the former pulp mill, and likely has been affected.
Landwehr says she’s excited for the students to see the bottom of the cove. She expects lots of debris left over from its longtime industrial use. As they’re not a diving class, the method for examining the bottom is an ROV, a remote operated vehicle, which is operated – remotely – by Gary Freitag, the Ketchikan Marine Advisory Agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Sea Grant Program.
Freitag and Ketchikan-based Oceans Alaska put together a state grant to buy the ROV for marine debris survey work. He says the compact submarine device is capable of diving about 800 feet, sends back real-time video, and has a manipulator arm that can lift up to 200 pounds.
“It’s got thrusters that allow it to do forward and back, up and down, auto heading and depth settings, lights, color camera with focus adjustments,” he adds. “It’s quite a unique little machine and it’s really easy to carry. It’s only about 30 pounds.”
Freitag’s done a few surveys already, and says they found a tremendous amount of debris, but so far no obviously dangerous discarded fishing gear. They did bring up an old rusty mailbox, because the door was still on it and it could trap marine animals, and they identified some old tires that should be removed at some point.
The grant to buy the ROV included an educational component, which was partly why he and Barbara Morgan of Oceans Alaska are out that day with the Kayhi students.
“The intent of it is to do marine surveys, looking for ghost fishing gear, and to expose students to the idea that good stewardship is the way to go, not just throw things over the side,” Morgan said.
The trip from Bar Harbor to Ward Cove doesn’t take long. Soon the maritime students tie the Jack Cotant up to the Oceans Alaska barge, and the ocean science students get out their gear to start testing the cove.
They looked at salinity, turbidity, plankton, dissolved oxygen, and temperature. Then, Freitag shows them an old-fashioned clamshell trap that they use to collect a soil sample from the bottom.
They send the trap down and get a small handful of mud. It isn’t particularly interesting to look at, although Freitag makes sure to give it a good sniff.
“If it smells like rotten eggs, it means it’s anoxy, which means there’s no oxygen,” he said.
Those are all initial tests before the star of the trip makes its appearance. Freitag and Morgan lift the ROV out of its case, start its generator (cue generator sound) and send it down. The result is a little anticlimactic.
“It’s pretty barren,” Freitag says, as Landwehr exclaims over the lack of debris.
There’s not much to see, and the students are starting to look bored. Luckily, the exploration is cut short when a thruster sucks up some debris.
Once Freitag fixes the ROV, they don’t bother sending it back down into Ward Cove.
Instead, the maritime students and their teacher untie the boat and motor a short distance across the narrows, so everyone can see the contrast between a damaged and a healthy ocean floor.
As soon as the ROV hits bottom, the difference is obvious, with an abundance of curious rockfish and a variety of starfish-type critters.
“There’s all kinds of sea stars here,” Freitag said, also pointing out a sea pen and a crinoid. “The one on the left in a crinoid and the one on the left is a sea pen. Those are really neat animals.”
Freitag uses the ROV’s arm to grab some of the crinoid’s limbs, and brings them up for closer examination. The orange, spindly fingers have an alien appearance, and Landwehr slips them into a sample bag to take back to school.
More fodder for eager science students.