Our trip started Friday after lunch with a six hour drive to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab (DISL) on a Cline Tours bus. Though exciting for the first couple of hours, the eighth grade students and our chaperones (Mr. K and Mrs. Hunt) eventually dropped into an endless void of playing video games and listening to music until we stopped for dinner (and cookies) at Chick-Fil-A. After another hour on the bus, we reached our destination, the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. We settled into our dorm, which had a common room with couches and two vending machines. This was a great place to gather and hang out during our stay (and many of us stocked up on candy and sugar). Then we set off for our night hike along the beach. Because there was not as much light pollution on the island, we could see the stars extremely well. We spotted constellations like the Big and Little Dipper, the Milky Way, planets such as Saturn, and even satellites we confused for stars. In the dark, the sand seemed mostly uniform, but when we looked closer, we found many ghost crabs. Looking out across the water and spotting natural gas rigs which lit up the Gulf of Mexico like a city, we began to realize just how vital Dauphin Island is, both ecologically and economically.
Bright and early the next day, after a tasty breakfast in the Sea Lab cafeteria, we met our DISL educator John, and boarded the 65 foot Research Vessel Alabama Discovery for a cruise in Mobile Bay. The weather was beautiful on the way out. Clouds covered the sun, but it was still warm with a nice breeze coming in when the boat was moving. One of the first things we saw that morning on the boat was a pair of dolphins. They moved right up to the boat and started body surfing on the waves made by the front of the boat. Most of us agreed that they were indescribably adorable. However, they left when we slowed and put out the first trawl net. The R/V Alabama used an otter trawl, a large net that is dragged along the bottom of the bay in order to catch fish and other creatures. Our first catch from the otter trawl was super cool, bringing up all sorts of fish and other aquatic creatures. The net was emptied onto a sorting table where the captains and our educator removed anything that might be dangerous, and then we were able to get a close-up and hands-on look at our catch. Among the many species brought up by the net were saltwater catfish, croakers, cutlass fish, bay anchovies, huge stingrays, squids, shrimp, crabs, three different types of sharks, and even some weird jellyfish. Our captains pulled the otter trawl a total of three times. After the second trawl, we got to throw some of the fish at the swarm of laughing gulls trailing us. The birds eagerly caught what we threw mid-air. During our third trawl, the dolphins came back, and they brought their buddies, too (we even say a baby)! We made it back to the dock just in time for lunch.
After a great lunch in the cafeteria, we met our educator, John, loaded nets and buckets onto one of the Sea Lab busses, and made our way to a salt marsh along Mississippi Sound on the northeast side of Dauphin Island. The marsh ecosystem is where many large species lay eggs, and a permanent habitat to many smaller creatures. We had the opportunity to trudge through stinky marsh mud, home to many crabs, snails, mussels, and graceful birds. Next, we crossed over to a small beach where the marsh meets the sound. Using seine and dip nets, we caught and identified many babies of the species we caught in the bay that morning, including a cute puffer fish and thousands of grass shrimp. It was extraordinary to see how this unique and important ecosystem (even though extremely muddy) was vitally connected to the rest of what we had seen.
The morning of our second day (Sunday), began with a hike across the beach on the Gulf side of the island. As we walked, we observed and gathered many different types of sea shells and caught (and released) a bunch of ghost crabs. At about the halfway point, we turned north, crossed the large dunes which protect the island, and headed in for a walk in the maritime forest. In the forest, it was a whole different world. Had we been blindfolded and brought out there, we could have sworn we were in Red Mountain Park or on the Cahaba River Trail. There was a small freshwater pond in the forest that had a large population of turtles. We stopped to admire them and watch the babies play with their parents. We also scanned the pond in hopes of seeing the large alligator that makes its home there. Along the way, John taught us about the wide variety of species in these ecosystems, and the importance of what we were seeing. The group concluded the hike with an amazing lunch provided by the great cafeteria staff.
The last thing we did during our trip to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab was build underwater Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs). We used different lengths of colored-coded PVC pipes, motors, and controllers to build the robots. We were given about half an hour to create our own ROVs, and we came up with a variety of designs. Some groups used a classic cube-shaped cage surrounding the three motors used to propel the robot, while other groups designed a wider cage with multiple arms for picking up pool rings. After taking our aquatic vehicles to the pool, we added additional materials to make our ROVs neutrally buoyant. We had to strap water bottles to our machines and decide on an amount of water that would allow the ROV to be able to go easily from top to bottom. Learning from our experimentation, we quickly figured out how to steer our vehicles under water. We had a competition between our groups to see which ROV could gather the most pool rings. This experience helped us relate to the engineers who have to design and steer larger ROVs used to complete much more important tasks. Our time at DISL was now over, and we boarded the bus for the trip back to Birmingham. The eighth grade learned a lot and enjoyed our adventures on Dauphin Island, and we all agree that it was well worth the six hour drive there and back!