As far as sea creatures go, it doesn’t get much cuter than a baby loggerhead turtle.
Three inches long with beady eyes and an upturned beak that looks very much like a grin, the newest resident at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium could be Savannah’s next heartthrob once visitors get a peek at the Ossabaw Island-hatched Caretta caretta during Skidaway Marine Science Day this Saturday, Oct. 15.
You’ll be able to watch the little dude (or dudette; the turtle’s gender and official nickname are yet to be determined) paddle around his tank in one of the behind–the–scenes tours given throughout the day, though his handlers admonish hugs and kisses are strictly off limits.
That’s all right — there’s plenty more that can be touched in other parts of the aquarium and around the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO) campus, including whelk, horseshoe crabs and the controls of a remotely–operated vehicle (ROV) that spends most of its time on the ocean floor.
“We’re bringing our science to the people,” says Mike Sullivan, SkIO’s enthusiastic external affairs coordinator. “Everyone on the campus is excited to show what we do here.”
Live oaks drape the internationally–acclaimed academic nexus, perfectly situated for marine research on a section of the Skidaway River also designated as part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
Housed on the 700–acre former cattle farm with SkIO and the UGA aquarium are the Department of Natural Resources’ underwater archaeology program, the UGA Shellfish Research Laboratory and Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary’s administrative and research headquarters. Georgia Tech, Savannah State and Georgia Southern all maintain lab facilities here as well.
Though not a degree–granting body, the Institute is part of the University System of Georgia, hosting scientists and graduate students who conduct research (mostly funded by the National Science Foundation) that can have an effect around the globe.
Citing projects that take his scientists from the Continental shelf ecosystem that pulls nutrients from the Gulf Stream to the melting ice shelves of the Arctic that shop unarguable evidence of global warming, SkIO director Dr. James Sanders upholds the Institute’s mission to take a broad view of the oceanic systems, the atmosphere and how they relate to each other.
Local issues like water quality have also been studied at the Institute, including a long–term analysis of how the presence of certain microbial species increased and others decreased during the explosion of residential development on Skidaway and Wilmington islands from the mid–’80s to the early 2000s (the changes leveled off as the islands reached their current density.)
“Even when we focus on our coastal environment, there are larger implications,” says Dr. Sanders, who, like the scientists and students hustling through the hallways carrying test tubes and boat ropes, is dressed for a day on the dock in shorts and deck shoes. “The work that goes on here is likely to be noticed around the globe.”
Though the dress code may be casual, there is a definitely a buzz of brains working in the laboratories.
While most people think marine science is limited to the study of “charismatic critters” like our friend the loggerhead turtle, much time and effort is spent at the Institute on what can’t be seen with the naked eye, including chemical and geological processes as well as marine biochemistry, toxicology and chemical ecology.
“We find new stuff about the way the world works all the time,” says Sullivan. “We’re trying to discover the information that going to be in the next textbook.”
Back over in the aquarium’s classrooms, educator Anne Lindsay prepares petri dishes and rows of microscopes in advance of Marine Science Day, when schoolkids and their parents can observe phytoplankton, pet a snake and even dissect a shark.
More than just a “aren’t sea things pretty” kind of day, this “marine science sampler” promises to bring down–and–dirty opportunities for budding scientists, as evidenced by the stingrays and other dead things in jars.
“We prefer to call them teaching specimens,” smiles Lindsay.
Outside the aquarium towards the river, Marine Science day participants can catch crabs off the dock and help create new marine ecosystems by bagging oyster shells. The research vessel Savannah is being shined up for tours.
But the draw for anyone who digs trucks, technology and/or robots will be the opportunity to move an ROV around the bottom of the Institute swimming pool.
“This is the same kind of machine that capped off the Deepwater Horizon leak,” says Gail Krueger of Gray’s Reef Sanctuary, which utilizes the ROV to investigate marine life about 20 miles off the coast of Savannah.
The organization also holds a regional competition every spring to see what high school team can build the best ROV. “That’s a pretty great example of how hands–on science can be fun and have a big impact.”
Perhaps even more relevant is a workshop offered by SkIO professor Bill Savidge called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Science Fair,” designed to help quell anxiety around creating a successful project and push people beyond the requisite volcano made from vinegar and baking soda.
“We hope we can take some of the mystery out of the process and show the students and parents how to make the science fair a rewarding experience,” says Dr. Savidge.
Debuting at the event will be the outdoor installation of a 7 foot–long shrimp sculpture in honor of one of coastal Georgia’s most ubiquitous sea creatures.
SCAD metals professor Ed Barbier created this and five other massive, scientifically–accurate sculptures that will be on display at SkIO for the next few months.
The gigantic nature of the tribute provides a telling perspective on the massive scope of marine science and the effect it continues to have on the planet, something the scientists at SkIO want to convey.
“We not only want to create new scientists, we want to create stewards.” says Lindsay. “The next generation will be the ones taking care of the oceans.”
Skidaway Marine Science Day
When: Saturday, Oct. 15, noon–4pm
Where: Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, 10 Ocean Science Circle, Savannah
Cost: Free and open to the public