2005-08-04 / Front Page

Explore the sea at Beavertail Aquarium

By Michaela Kennedy

Naturalists Emily Winser with a horseshoe crab and Sagel Harde with a spider crab at the Beavertail Aquarium. Photo by Michaela Kennedy Naturalists Emily Winser with a horseshoe crab and Sagel Harde with a spider crab at the Beavertail Aquarium. Photo by Michaela Kennedy “We get 50 or more visitors a day,” says Sagel Harde at the Beavertail Aquarium.

A better guess might be closer to 100 or more, as a group of 40 campers from East Greenwich pour into the one-room, touch-tank aquarium at Beavertail State Park. It’s a Monday, and the flood of visitors is just as strong as the day before. The visitor log on the desk reveals scheduled groups of 25 to 30 children in two or three groups a day, not counting the walk-in visitors.

Harde tells of a group of motorcyclists from Texas that stopped in the previous week to ask all sorts of questions about the local sea life. She notes that peo-ple visit from far and near, sharing stories of the places they come from and curious to know what Rhode Island has to offer.

Harde and Emily Winser, both naturalists, are at the building on the Beavertail Point every day, helping to educate people who come from all over the state — and country — on the local marine life.

A group of teenage boys from Chepachet crowd around the touch tank and point to the crabs, daring each other to pick one up. Harde encourages them as she dips her hands into the water and brings up a spider crab with a leg span of about a foot and a half from pincer to pincer. A much younger boy approaches the tank, sticks an arm down to the bottom of the tank and pulls out a snow crab. Winser reaches in and pro-duces a hermit crab at least two feet long.

Harde and Winser are proud to have the opportunity to teach vis-itors about their local environ-ment. They facilitate tidal pool explorations along the shore at low tide, and continue to learn themselves.

Adults and parents are fasci-nated with what is offered, Harde and Winser agree, but the children show unbridled enthusiasm and overflow with questions, eager to learn all they can. “It’s an imprint that stays with them throughout their lives,” says Harde about the sea life program. Harde says she has only been working at the state-run aquarium since May, and admits she is “obsessed” with it.

Winser tells of how every day brings a new adventure. One day, a man drove up in his truck and came running into the building with his son. They had found an odd-looking creature and wanted to find out what it was. Winser says this is part of the fun in their daily activities, because they go to the research books and discover more things they didn’t know existed in the area. “It was a goose barnacle,” Winser notes, adding that she had never seen one before. She explains how dif-ferent it is from the more typical acorn barnacles found attached to rocks and boats. “This kind is lighter and will float in the water, attaching itself to a clump of sea-weed,” she says.

Winser goes on to explain that the tanks are set up to imitate a mini-environ-ment of the one right outside at the shore. Winser, who has been working at the aquarium for a few years now, notes that she is becoming more adept at recog-nizing the differ-ent species of marine animals and how to take care of them. When she first started, Winser says, she had a tough time keep-ing some sam-ples alive in the tanks for more than a few days. Pipefish, for example, were fickle and difficult to feed. “But now I can take care of them,” she says.

A couple of weeks ago when the power went out, the filtration pumps stopped. When the power came back, one of the pumps broke down. They had to work quickly to save the sea animals by releasing some and moving others to tanks with working air filters.

“We didn’t lose anything,” Harde adds.

The aquarium caretakers note that live samples are returned to their natural habitat after a couple of weeks, and the process of find-ing new samples is repeated throughout the season. Winser says she is getting better at find-ing specimens along the shore, and she teaches the children how to hunt. The specialists show the youngsters how creatures like to hide. A lot can be found just by overturning rocks.

“Kids love to collect things, and they help us collect new sam-ples. They find satisfaction in knowing they donated their treas-ures,” Winser notes. A young girl visiting points with concern to a dead fish in one of the tanks. Harde tells her that it is part of the natural environment, and other fish will pick at it for food.

The naturalists here spread an infectious excitement for the environment and emphasize how lucky they consider themselves to learn and teach at the same time. Winser and Harde are considering ways to expand the program already in place, such as researching grant possibilities that would fund development of the aquari-um.

Bob Paquette from the state Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Recreation said there is no truth to speculation that the state aquari-um program would be discontin-ued and the converted foghorn house used for other purposes. He said that the state-controlled prop-erty is dedicated to the sea life education program.

When asked about Paquette’s comments, Jill Meyer, a docent for the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association, agreed. “The state controls what happens to the property, not us,” Meyer says.

“This is Rhode Island, right here,” says Harde. “I can never take this for granted.”

The aquarium is open until the end of October, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. For more information or to schedule guided tidal pool explorations, call 423-9941.

Take virtual field trips tied into the Beavertail Aquarium at http://omp.gso.uri.edu/doce2.htm

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