I have to admit, I did it. I had that typical ‘dad’ moment. That moment that makes every 12-year-old boy wince at his father’s humor. The morning of our scientific cruise, my son was reading the FAQs sent to us by the Inland Seas Education Association. “We are going to be aboard the ship from 2-5pm,” David read. “I’ll have to miss football practice.”
“2-5pm? That’s 3 hours, right?” I asked. He nodded. “Hmm…A three-hour cruise, a three-hour cruise. Hopefully…the weather won’t start getting rough. Our tiny ship won’t get tossed. Without the courage of our fearless crew, the Inland Seas may be lost. The Inland Seas may be lost.” By this point I was full-out singing.
“What are you talking about?” My son asked. His embarrassment at his father’s antics punctuated every word.
“Gilligan’s Island! It’s the theme song! Three-hour cruises leave you stranded on deserted islands.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said with his head hung low.
So what if I’m a stereotypical embarrassing dad? He will be too. I was excited to go on this sailing adventure with my son.
This summer, the Charlevoix County Community Foundation and the Petoskey/Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation sponsored eight Community Funded Trips aboard the Inland Seas Education Association‘s Schooner. My son David was invited to attend one of these trips by his 6th grade science teacher, Jennifer LaPoint. Although he tried to hide it beneath a ‘cool’ facade, he was as excited about the cruise as I was.
The mission of the Inland Seas Education Association (ISEA) is to “help people of all ages experience the science and spirit of the Great Lakes through hands-on, experiential learning activities aboard a traditionally-rigged tall ship schooner.” The ISEA focuses on long-term stewardship of the Great Lakes, and this program was designed to teach guests about the fragility of the Great Lakes ecosystem. I haven’t witnessed David in an educational setting in a few years, so I was curious to see how he would respond to the program.
We were greeted with warm smiles by the staff and volunteers of the Inland Seas at the end of the Petoskey dock. After a brief safety talk by the ship’s captain, we were split into four groups and allowed onto the boat. Once everyone was seated, the ship left the dock by motor power. A few minutes later, we were in the middle of Little Traverse Bay.
Before we set sail, we began collecting data. A giant net was lowered into the water and dragged behind the ship as we again went to motor. “This net runs near the bottom of the lake,” one of the ISEA volunteers explained. “We want to collect those fish that are hidden in the depths of the lake, feeding off of plankton. We will identify and count all of the fish and then return them to the lake.”
I have to admit, I was expecting to see the net filled with bluegills, trout, salmon, walleyes, perch, and bass. Instead, we pulled up … minnows. Swarms of tiny minnows. Oh, and a Diet Coke can. My son and I stared blankly, unsure what to think of this haul. “This is great,” our instructor cried out as she stared at the buckets of puny fish. “We usually don’t get that many.”
“But they’re so small,” David said.
“That’s what we want,” the volunteer explained. “We are going to catalog the bottom-dwelling fish. They are the small fish that bigger fish eat. Understanding them is key to the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.”
Later in the cruise, we met the bottom dwelling fish eye-to-eye, and what we learned was rather frightening for both me and David.
The volunteer instructor explained to us that in 2005, the round goby, a speckled fish from the Black and Caspian Seas with an almost endearing wide-eyed stare, was only a small percentage of bottom fish captured. They arrived in the Great Lakes in the ’90s the way most invasive species do, from ballast water of ocean-going ships. Since their arrival, their numbers have grown dramatically. So much so, that they were the only breed of fish that we captured in our net. What makes them successful is that the round goby protect their spawning habitat so aggressively that native small fish cannot reproduce. Gobies also feed on the eggs of lake trout, which is already facing limited reproduction and falling numbers.
After we collected the fish, the volunteers pulled out a small clam-shell scoop that they called a ponar device. Two children were asked to aid in the lowering and raising of the scoop. The device is used to collect sediment samples from the bottom of the lake. Again we were faced with unsettling collection results. While the sediment itself looked pollution free, there was only one native creature, a dead spiral clam. The rest of the animals captured were invasive mussels.
We found both zebra and quagga mussels in the sediment. These critters are filter feeders, using their cilia to pull water into their shells so they can consume plankton. Quagga mussels are ravenous eaters and consume a large amount of phytoplankton. Each penny-sized quagga can filter up to a liter of water per day, devouring the plankton that sustains native fish. It is estimated that for every pound of prey fish in Lake Michigan today, there are an estimated three to four pounds of zebra and quagga mussels clustered on the lake bed.
The impact of this is an increase in water transparency, which allows more light to penetrate the bottom of lakes. Once the light reaches the bottom, aquatic plants can grow. These plants then drastically transform the ecosystem of their area.
David tested the visibility of the lake by dropping a white circular disk into the water. As he lowered the disk deeper and deeper into the lake, he counted marked feet lines. At twelve feet, the disk finally disappeared.
“Six years ago we were lucky to ever see ten feet,” the instructor told us. “Now we have readings of 14-16 feet.”
Let’s be honest, as residents of the Great Lakes basin we want our water to be as clear as a swimming pool and as stocked full of fish as a hatchery. But unfortunately, we can’t have both as the increased water clarity is deadly to fish. What is happening is that the quagga mussels are filtering out huge quantities of fish food and nutrients from the water. The result is a clearer lake that is an increasingly barren environment for fish and aquatic life. The water clarity is especially damaging to salmon and the fish they eat.
Another nasty side effect of the quagga mussel is the fueling of noxious algae blooms, like the one that poisoned the water of Toledo earlier this summer and closed several beaches the previous years. The added sunlight caused by the mussels, combined with the mussels trapping phosphorus on the lake bottom where algae grows create ideal conditions for these blooms. Storm waves rip the algae off the lake bottom and washes it onto shores and into rivers.
Next we collected plankton. Another net, with holes the width of two human hairs, was lowered in the water by one of the children. When he pulled the net up, the water escaped and the plankton were captured in a tube.
We visited the laboratory below deck to identify the microscopic creatures. Again, the results of our sample were startling. In one drop of water we were greeted by a horrifying looking creature called the spiny water flea.
Technically a crustacean but considered zooplankton, the spiny water flea is a native to Europe and Asia that was first introduced into the Great Lakes in the early ’80s. They are about a 1/4″ long and have a single long tail with spines along the length. Spiny water fleas eat other zooplankton, which are vital food sources for native fish. They reproduce rapidly, overtaking the food source of juvenile fish. What makes this species of water flea so dangerous to the Great Lakes is that their long spine makes it nearly impossible for fish to swallow them.
The final sampling that the children collected was lake water and weather measurements.
I have to be completely honest, I skipped this experiment. The wind was heavy and the ship was rocking. I did well above deck, but by the time we were done looking at plankton, I was done below deck. In fact, I wasn’t alone. By the time our group reached the water quality testing station, David was the only one left. He told me that this was his favorite station, because he loved mixing the chemicals to test the water.
Once the collecting was done, it was time to sail.
The crew recruited the children’s help in hauling up the anchor, raising the sails, tying off the sheets, and even steering the ship. We were blessed with a stiff wind, so the boat raced back and forth across the bay. When the waves hit the side of the boat, the spray soaked us. The boat rocked, making it almost unbearable to be below deck. The wind was a bit nippy, forcing nearly everyone into jackets. The sky was cloudy and threatened rain. Still, there was something magical about being out on the water.
At one point, one of the volunteers told us all to keep quiet for one minute and simply listen. The sails snapped back and forth over head. The wind whistled. The water crashed against the hull. The ship creaked and moaned. I looked over to my son, who was grinning so widely the corners of his mouth almost met his ears.
I have to thank the Charlevoix County Community Foundation, the Petoskey/Harbor Springs Area Community Foundation, and the Inland Seas Education Association for providing this wonderful trip for us. When I asked my son later how the trip met his expectations, his joy was evident. “This was so much cooler than I thought it would be,” he said. I asked him what his favorite part was, fully expecting him to say steering the boat or helping with the sails. “The experiments below deck,” he said. “I felt like a real scientist, not just some kid. When they rang the bell for us to stop, I was hoping she would let me stay to do more.”
What more could you ask for out of a three-hour tour?
You can learn more about the Inland Seas Education Association schooner at schoolship.org.