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Volunteering on the research vessel Katy

By Sharron Flood
July 19, 2010 at 2:19 a.m.
Updated July 21, 2010 at 2:21 a.m.

This brittle star was part of a haul aboard the R/V Katy, a converted trawler at UT Marine Science Center in Port Aransas.  The Katy takes groups, mostly school groups, out and shares knowledge about our coastal waters.  Group members can examine animals from microscopic size up.  Collection is done first using a bottle attached to a fine-weave sieve; then a shallow trawl; and a deeper trawl if it's a full-day trip.

For the past three months, I have volunteered at the University of Texas Marine Science Center in Port Aransas on the Research Vessel Katy. The Katy is a 35-foot trawler outfitted to take school groups out and share knowledge about our coastal waters. We mainly take school groups, but other groups book the trips as well. We had a group of Boy Scouts working on a badge, which was a lot of fun. They were very energetic and full of questions about "the ocean."

My first trip was with an Elderhostel group that brought along an expert birder. Because birding is one of my loves, I had to restrain myself from elbowing the paying guests out of the way so I could hear and see better. Usually, though, the groups are high-school-age students.

Before we board the vessel for a trip, our naturalist talks with the group, giving them a short history of the area, the bays, the old Lydia Ann lighthouse, and the importance of the port of Corpus Christi and the pass leading to the port. Then, after a quick safety talk, we all board the Katy.

A large number of the people have never been to the coast, nor seen the "ocean," as they think of it. The dolphins we see perform almost as if on a schedule, to the amazement of everyone. The birds are always numerous, and just the excitement of a boat trip is enough to make the trip worthwhile.

We first trawl the water with a collection bottle attached to a fine-weave sieve for about 15 minutes. Then that is brought up, and the naturalist talks about estuaries and the critters that live in them. A bit of the water collected is put into individual microscopes so group members can see the tiny, microscopic animals and such, using their own scopes. The first word I hear every time is "Wow!" It is so much fun to watch, and people never seem to get tired of looking at what is in the water. We all always laugh about how much water we've swallowed while swimming in it. Then, in the Katy's wet lab, we put some of the water on slides and show what's on those slides on a large screen, so people can watch that sample while the shallow trawl is being done.

The shallow trawl is done with a larger net and is about 20 minutes in length at a depth of about 15 feet. When the net is brought up, the catch in it includes lots of different kinds of critters buried in the seaweed caught up in the net. We see such things as sea squirts, shrimp, squid and other small creatures.

If it's a full-afternoon trip, we then do a deeper trawl for about 20 minutes. This is the trawl that brings up larger fish. On a recent trip, I helped with the deep trawl. We netted a small bonnet shark, which was the star of the show. There is always such a variety of fish, and everyone is so excited to see and hear about each one.

We keep data sheets on the shallow and deep trawls, noting the exact location, water temperature, wind speed and air temperature. Then the numbers of different species are noted on the sheets as we bring them in.

All in all, because I've long had salt water running in my veins and adore working with kids, this volunteering is pure heaven for me. The curiosity and excitement of the kids is so rewarding. Even if they wanted to pay me for doing such a job, I would do it for free.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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