Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary
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Ocean Voyager behind the scenes Georgia Aquarium

2016 group's first stop at Ocean Voyager behind the scenes Georgia Aquarium.
(Photo:Michelle Riley, GRNMS)

Rivers to Reefs, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, is offered annually to Georgia educators by Gray's Reef, Georgia Aquarium, Gordon State College, and the University of Georgia. The week-long field trip immerses 16 selected teachers, who competed for the privilege of participating in the workshop, into the Altamaha River watershed, allowing them to experience first-hand the vital connections between rivers and the ocean.

The week is jam-packed with activities that most Georgians never experience, beginning with a behind-the-scenes orientation at Georgia Aquarium and ending with an offshore trip to Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary aboard a working research ship. In between, the group canoes down the Ocmulgee River to where it conjoins the Oconee. At this confluence they feel the two rivers collide head-on, forming the mighty Altamaha River. The teachers see an abundance of wading birds, shorebirds and alligators along the way.

Collecting water samples from the Ocmulgee River prior to setting out in canoes.

Collecting water samples from the Ocmulgee River prior to setting out in canoes.
(Photo:Michelle Riley, GRNMS)

Participating teachers will come to understand how the Altamaha River, the seventh largest watershed on the eastern seaboard, directly influences Georgia's coastal waters, and ultimately, Gray's Reef.

As the teachers investigate, explore and discover the connections between inland rivers and offshore marine habitats, they begin to understand very deeply that the waters flowing through the Altamaha River watershed profoundly influence Gray's Reef.

The latter part of the trip offers the group the opportunity to spend two nights in Hog Hammock on Sapelo Island. This small settlement is one of only a few remaining intact island Gullah/Geechee communities on the Atlantic Coast. The residents are descendants of the formerly enslaved Geechee people, who were brought to Sapelo from West Africa's Sierra Leone and the West Indies to work on the island's plantations. Today, Hog Hammock's 50 or so residents retain their Saltwater Geechee accent and preserve their unique culture and blended African and American customs.

Canoeing into the headwaters of the Altamaha River.

Canoeing into the headwaters of the Altamaha River.
(Photo: Michelle Riley, GRNMS)

While on Sapelo Island, the teachers explore the barrier island and its expansive salt marshes. In a mud crawl not to be missed, the group sloshes through the thick dark mud of a salt marsh to learn why they are considered one of the most important and productive habitats on earth. The estuary that encompasses the salt marsh, where the freshwater from the river mixes with the saltwater of the Atlantic, is one of the largest estuary systems on the Atlantic coast. Many ocean fish use salt marshes as nursery grounds for their young before they move to open waters. In fact, salt marshes play a large role in the aquatic food web and as a delivery system for nutrients into coastal waters. They also support land animals and provide coastal protection.

Teachers view Gray's Reef via underwater cameras

Teachers view Gray's Reef via underwater cameras.
(Photo:Greg McFall/NOAA)

Departing from Sapelo Island, the teachers take a day-long trip aboard the R/V Savannah, UGA's Skidaway Institute of Oceanography's research ship. Sixteen miles offshore, the group arrives at Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary, with its abundance of fish, sea stars, crabs, lobsters, sharks and other marine life. While in the sanctuary, Gray's Reef staff, along with the ship's crew, deploys an underwater camera to allow the teachers to see the reef and its sea creatures without getting wet.

And at Gray's Reef, the final connection is made: the huge Altamaha flows into the Atlantic Ocean, carrying millions of gallons of freshwater and nutrients to the estuary and out into the ocean. There, Gray's Reef survives as a healthy habitat that supports millions of organisms, from tiny corals and seahorses to huge sea turtles and whales. All is made clear, from Rivers to Reefs!

Funding for Rivers to Reefs is provided by an Improving Higher Education Teacher Quality Grant, University of Georgia, Georgia Aquarium, Gordon State College and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary.


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