Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef Expedition 201
Mission Information
 

Educators Workshop Introduction

Rivers to Reefs, Class of July 2010 at Three-Way Sandbar

Rivers to Reefs, Class of July 2010 at Three-Way Sandbar
(Photo: Cathy Sakas, GRNMS)

If you asked 16 veteran classroom teachers if they wanted to get muddy, sandy, wet, hot, sweaty, and tired for six days, you would think it would be very difficult to find willing participants in the Rivers to Reefs Educators Workshop. Actually, we found that over 150 were eager to do this.

The workshop is an immersion experience in the seventh largest watershed on the eastern seaboard and it directly influences Gray's Reef. Teaching educators about the Altamaha River watershed, how we impact it and how it influences Gray's Reef and other offshore habitats is the workshop focus. Staff from Gray's Reef along with partners from Georgia Aquarium, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography and Armstrong-Atlantic State University empower each participant with background knowledge, tools and materials and the all-important first hand (and feet!) field experiences in every part of the watershed.

Water quality testing on Sapelo Island

Water quality testing on Sapelo Island
(Photo: Cathy Sakas, GRNMS)

The jam-packed workshop begins in Atlanta with a visit to the Georgia Aquarium's Learning Loop where the technology behind keeping sea creatures in the largest aquarium in the world healthy and happy is revealed. Huge whale sharks along with hammerheads and sawfish glide by gigantic glass viewing areas with only a few inches separating air breathers from ocean dwellers.

After an introductory evening of orientation at the Aquarium and a first round of getting to know each other, the very next morning the teachers begin their field experience in Shoal Creek in DeKalb County. In ankle deep water the 16 participants take their first water samples. At each stop along the watershed, they will conduct water quality tests for pH, nitrogen, phosphorous, salinity and dissolved oxygen. They will record the air and water temperatures and note the general appearance of the area as well as the weather conditions. These factors will help them determine if the water in any particular area is healthy or not. They will repeat these tests each day and sometimes several times a day. This results in a profile of the entire watershed from beginning to end, from Atlanta all the way to Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, from rivers to reefs.

Canoe launch at Confluence

Canoe launch at Confluence
Photo: Cathy Sakas, GRNMS

Other highlights are the canoe trip down the Ocmulgee River to where it conjoins the Oconee to form the mighty Altamaha River. A sand bar at the confluence provides a wonderful place to enjoy lunch and to listen to local conservationists talk about their section of the watershed. Other on-water experiences include a boat ride in the Altamaha River Delta where salt meets fresh. Here an abundance of shorebirds and alligators become apparent.

The last section of the watershed to be explored from land is Sapelo Island. Not only is the natural history of the island explored, but the cultural aspects of island life and the people's connection to the Altamaha are explored. Renowned historian and Island Manager Buddy Sullivan makes Georgia's history come alive by connecting livelihood to environment and how changes occurred over the decades and centuries as new resources were exploited. While on Sapelo Island, we immerse ourselves in the cultural history of the native islanders by staying in the community of Hog Hammock where we eat what they prepare for us and sleep in their accommodations. They teach us how to weave baskets from sweet grass that grows in the ditches and regale us with stories of growing up in an isolated yet idyllic island world.

Exploring the marshes on Sapelo Island

Exploring the marshes on Sapelo Island
Photo: Cathy Sakas, GRNMS

One of the surprises of the workshop is the crawl through the marsh. Most who live in coastal Georgia drive past the marsh every day but never really experience it. We make sure our teachers know it intimately. We investigate the grass, snails, mud, sand, crabs and mussels and even eat some of the succulent marsh plants. More importantly, we know that firsthand marsh mud is made of clay and silt and that saltmarsh grass will hold you up to a certain point. Beyond that point we drop to our knees and forearms to crawl through the mud transforming ourselves from composed professionals to playful kids by rediscovering our inner child who can still sling a handful of good clean mud.

Loggerhead prepares her nest for eggs

Loggerhead prepares her nest for eggs
Photo: Cathy Sakas, GRNMS

On Sapelo we take opportunity to study the connection of Sapelo Island National Estuarine Research Reserve to Gray's Reef, both part of the federal agency National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration better known as NOAA. Both estuaries and sanctuaries are charged with protecting resources, one a barrier island and the other an ocean habitat, that are integrally linked. We take time to thoroughly investigate the ecology of the beach communities, maritime forests and the expansive marsh. Weather permitting, a night walk on Nanny Goat Beach reveals the "billions and billions of stars" that are so bright with no streets lights to obscure their glory. We even observe the faint green light of bioluminescence that the microscopic dinoflagellates give off when they are disturbed much like the light of fireflies. We are always in hope of observing a female Loggerhead sea turtle laying her eggs as her species has done for over 180 million years. The same turtles we see on Sapelo can be seen foraging and resting under the ledges at Gray's Reef. Our time on Sapelo is way too brief, but it is very well spent. Often times we only get a few hours of sleep before the wakeup call comes for us to head to the ferry.

Yvonne Grovner, teaching basket weaving skills.

Yvonne Grovner, teaching basket weaving skills
Photo: Kim Morris-Zarneke, Georgia Aquarium

For most, the highlight of the workshop is the all day cruise aboard the RV Savannah, Skidaway Institute of Oceanography's research vessel, to Gray's Reef. There Gray's Reef divers, along with the ship's crew deploy the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) and then swim it over the reef so participants see the reef in real time without getting wet. Seeing the reef for the very first and for most the only time with its brightly colored fish, swaying soft corals, knobbed barrel shaped sponges and odd looking sea spiders and crabs is a true awakening. Knowing that water in Shoal Creek eventually makes its way along the 270 miles of watershed to end up at Gray's Reef sinks in visually and viscerally when they finally see Gray's Reef. They have learned by now that every one of us impacts a watershed and our watersheds impact our ocean. They understand that by taking care of our watershed we in turn take care of our ocean, Gay's Reef, and for the long term, we take care of planet and ultimately ourselves.

At the end of each day, our classroom curriculum expert leads a discussion recapping the experiences of the day to help our teachers plan how to incorporate all they learn into their classrooms. The teachers share their ideas and lessons learned and most importantly their "aha" moments. Evaluations help the leaders know how to tweak the workshops to maximize reaching our goal of turning out watershed-literate ocean stewards. Professional Learning Units or PLUs are awarded to those completing the requirements of the workshop. Each day journals are used to record ideas, thoughts, questions and reflections on what our teachers are doing, learning and experiencing and to help them plan for next year's classroom lessons. Each teacher is eager to bring their experiences back to their students knowing that their personal interpretations of the experiences maybe the closest their students get to a marsh, a wetland, an island, the ocean. Our teachers become inspired, renewed, awakened, motivated, experienced, jazzed, knowledgeable, proficient, confidant and ardent stewards of our watershed and ocean and they are eager to share.

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