NYC School Group teams up with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Cape Cod, By Jove!

A Full Week Features a New Dimension – An Afternoon of Science, Courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

 What weather! I do not remember a continuous stretch of mid-October warmth in Brewster such as we had this past week. We had our share of wetness, mind you– Wednesday afternoon into Thursday brought an unending series of waves of heavy rain. But even on the two clear overnight periods on Monday and Thursday, the temperature was stable and surprisingly mild. Another surprise was our miraculous luck with the rain; it only came down heavily when we had scheduled indoor events, notably the WHOI activities on Wednesday afternoon. All our hiking, boating, and biking either squeaked between raindrops or were in completely fair weather. Even our educator/guides from Massachusetts Audubon, Jennette Kerr, Emily Wolf, and Amy Ferreira, were able to keep relatively dry on our outings with them.

Monday’s ride up from New York City was a pleasant one, though several teachers remarked at coastal New England’s unusual absence of brilliant fall colors. We arrived safely, without incident, at the Cape Cod Sea Camps to stake out our quarters in the cabins. There was ample afternoon daylight left to allow for split sessions of soccer and observational drawing before dinner. Jeanette, from Massachusetts Audubon, delivered a wonderful introductory after-dinner presentation; it featured an explanation of the oceanography of Stellwagen Bank, a guessing game with boys role-playing stages of aquatic animals adapted to the area, and one boy being chosen to read aloud a naturalist’s dramatic eyewitness account of an amazing encounter on the Stellwagen Bank between representatives from every stage of the food chain, from plankton to killer whales. The scheduled events concluded with journal-writing and boys reading their own ghost stories. The boys were very understanding about the lack of a campfire because of wet firewood, and for snack they ate cold chocolate and marshmallows instead of “s’mores” without complaint. Now that’s adaptive behavior!

Jupiter presented himself, rather benevolently, in the east late that first night. Just at “lights out” on Monday, I hastily set up one of the telescopes outside the front door of our cabin, The Cain. The boys of The Cain, already abed in their pajamas, each took a turn in the mild night air for a brief telescopic glimpse of the planet and three visible Galilean satellites before tucking back in for the night. Goodnight, moons?

Tuesday was jam-packed with activity. Right after morning chow, we bussed to Wellfleet for our morning and afternoon activities. The first one has the longest tradition on Saint David’s annual visits to the Cape– the monumental Great Island Hike. This year, it featured the benefits of sun-blocking cloud cover accompanied by mild breezes as well as sure footing at dead low tide. Lunch was a sandwich and a drink in the Great Island parking lot. A quick bus ride to the pier and we were then off with Amy and Emily on our afternoon Marine Life Cruise of the harbor. In splendid weather, we saw a great number of seals at Jeremy Point and dredged up dozens of interesting specimens, notably baby flounder and rather large spider crabs, to examine and handle before returning them to the water (and us to the pier). Once back at camp, there was time for the boys to complete their drawing work and play some sports before dinner. As clouds and some drizzle began to roll in after dinner, Charlie Trapp, our caller, arrived to set up his p. a. system for the square dance. (Another NYC school contingent of sixty or so sixth grade girls had arrived Monday evening with chaperones. We had breakfasts and dinners at roughly the same time each day together in the dining hall, until they departed Thursday a. m.) The boys and girls all turned up scrubbed and nicely dressed for the dance, and all did their level best to negotiate the kaleidoscopic geometries of square dancing while maintaining their poise. Things became more relaxed and quite festive when “Cotton Eyed Joe” began. The girls all seemed to be “in the know,” but by the time the song ended, most of the boys had learned the moves by imitating the girls’ example. Another line dance concluded the musical portion, and Charlie began to pack up. But the evening continued a bit longer as the boys and girls spontaneously sat in a large circle in the middle of the floor and began a spirited game of “duck, duck, goose” that went on for some time. At the end, Charlie was gone, but everyone was too busy having a good time to have noticed when he left.

Wednesday’s forecast was not optimistic, but we took the chance that the major rain would hold off until after the Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary walk, and it did. In a slight and mild drizzle, Jeanette and Emily were our guides. They helped the boys, through their expert descriptions, deepen their understanding and sense of place regarding the salt marsh habitat. Afterward, the boys moved inside the Sanctuary’s museum to do some marvelous work in their sketchbooks.

Back home at the Cape Cod Sea Camps, we had a bag lunch and then prepared for the centerpiece of this year’s trip: the Science Afternoon presented by Woods Hole scientists Heather Benway and Dave Gallo. Everyone was curious and excited to participate in the program, and we were not disappointed. In the first part of the program, dedicated to the subject of ocean acidification (OA), Dr. Benway introduced the boys to the concept of pH and how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be absorbed by water to make it slightly more acid. They performed experiments using their breath and yeast as sources of CO2, and they took numerical data of both CO2 gas and acidity of the water with the aid of probes hooked up to special hand-held computers. They also examined treated vs. untreated scallop shells for the effects of soaking for 36 hours in a mild acidic solution, and used a home-made cabbage juice indicator to test the pH levels of some common household liquids. The degree to which the boys processed and synthesized all of this information was immediately apparent in their enthusiasm and in the sophistication of questions they had for Dr. Benway in her summary session at the end. Dr. Gallo, an oceanographer at WHOI, took over the presentation. The boys were amazed at some of the motion photography of volcanic and life-form activities taking place on the floor of the deep ocean. He also brought with him some pictures, recently computer generated from data collected over a period of years, of the wreck and debris field of the Titanic. The boys were privileged to be among the first people on earth to see these oversized (over 2 feet wide by 4 feet in length) and dramatic prints, and they took a keen interest. It was a great afternoon, and Dr. Benway and Dr. Gallo deserve our praise and thanks for putting the program together and bringing it to us at our home base.

By this time, the pouring rain prevented any thought of outdoor sports, so we used the time stuck inside to write in the journals about the experience and begin a movie before dinner. From lunch through dinner, movie, and pre-bedtime snack, we spent over eight hours confined to the dining hall, and nobody complained at all. It was a great day.

Thursday began with writing some more after breakfast while showers continued outside. As we prepared to leave for Provincetown for bike riding and shopping, the clouds miraculously began to break up and, by the time of our arrival at the town pier in Provincetown, they were completely replaced by clear sky and brilliant sunshine. We had a great ride, saw seals on Race Point beach, and headed back for some shopping. While roaming through the Army & Navy store, one of our enthusiastic shoppers was heard to remark, “I could live here!” Afternoon sports back at camp and a festive and filling clambake for dinner rounded out our activities for the week. The teachers were all pleased, and we all had a chuckle at our luck with the weather.

That first night was the only cloudless telescopic sky-viewing opportunity of the week. But early Friday morning, as Mr. Kilkeary and I met at the van for our customary annual pre-dawn chore of luggage-ferrying, there was the bright planet again, now in the clear western sky, indicating our way homeward. It seemed to be winking a Jovial “good day” at us and, perhaps, a last minute “bon voyage” to the whole group.

Article by: Gary Kessler of St. David’s School, NYC