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From the California Current Marine Ecosystem into the Classroom

A Teaching from the Sea

by Laurie Guest

The research vessel Fulmar
I was standing starboard on the 65-foot research vessel Fulmar with more cameras around my neck than a Disneyland tourist. And did I see anything? No! Just fog, fog, and more fog—with a gray sea to match the mists and my mood.

All the of the scientists aboard were spotting creatures and calling out directions (relative to the ship's prow as "12 o'clock"). "Humpback whale at 11 o'clock!" and "Pacific white-sided dolphin at two!" No matter where I was standing, though, I seemed to be getting zilch in the way of wildlife sightings.

Black-footed Albatross. Photo by Tom Grey (

Feeling quite dejected, I went to the stern in a huff. That's when an enormous, gorgeous Black-footed Albatross came sailing on the breeze right over my head. It did a super slide across the water as it came to a rest. Its eye was exotic, as if rimmed in kohl, its beak curved and dangerous. It was so close I felt I could touch it, but I barely dared to breathe as I happily shot video. Intent on zooming in and out, I didn't notice at first that another albatross had landed. And another. Then about a hundred more albatross were landing behind the vessel, and all of the biologists and scientists were scrambling for their own cameras and busy counting birds. This was the first of many great moments that I could share with my sixth-grade Art and Science students.

I had learned about this amazing opportunity at the National Marine Educators Association conference in Monterey this past June. I was so eager to apply for NOAA's Teacher At Sea (TAS) program that I could almost taste it. From 170 candidates, I was lucky to be chosen to participate on a cruise outside the Golden Gate with scientists from PRBO and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Laurie Guest (left) with NOAA scientist Kaitlin Graiff aboard the Fulmar. Photo by Jaime Jahncke / PRBO.
Aboard the Fulmar over a six-day span in July, I was one of seven investigators, each with a specific assignment—operating sampling devices, recording data, observing birds and mammals. I was to scout for sea life and help deploy the plankton hoop net, sampling for the types of krill most favored by Cassin's Auklets—Euphausia pacifica and Thysanoessa spinifera. We collected lots of juvenile krill in the nets, which also contained some gelatinous zooplankton.

After the albatross moment, in fact, my week with NOAA brimmed with wonderful close encounters. I saw what I thought was a great white shark following the hoop net, a miniscule octopus about a centimeter tall, and a jelly so enormous that it took several people to get "him" back into the ocean.

Experiments with real scientists! Birds with six-foot wing spans just above your head! Photos and stories to bring back to my classroom on the mainland! What a tremendous experience, being a Teacher at Sea.