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Mid-Pen’s Island Classroom

Kayaking in Catalina!  

Every year, Julia’s Advanced Biology class travels to Catalina Island for a learning adventure that transforms classroom topics into vivid, firsthand experiences. While it’s a fascinating classroom lesson to learn how octopuses use chromatophores to camouflage themselves in their environment, the same lesson absolutely enthralls students as they observe and even touch an octopus in its natural environment. We were fortunate enough to have such an octopus encounter during our kayak excursion, a highlight moment of the trip that really drove home the value of experiential learning.

The experiential learning began last Tuesday afternoon when 18 students and 3 chaperones hopped on a jet bound for Los Angeles. It’s hard to say we hit the ground running because first we had to negotiate Los Angeles traffic en route to our hotel in Long Beach, where we eventually had a poolside pizza party before going to bed early to rest up for our trip to the island in the morning.

In the morning, we took a 2-hour boat trip to our home for the next 3 days, the California Island Marine Institute (CIMI) at Fox Landing. Upon arrival, we met our CIMI instructor, Nicola, who gave us an overview of the program and got us to the cafeteria where we ate lunch. Nicola then taught us how to put on our snorkel gear, which turns out to be quite the process, and then led us into the water for our first snorkel. We encountered a wide range of sea life that Nicola used as the subjects for her lessons in what was essentially a classroom in the sea. The kids were especially interested in the two sea hares we discovered (Google ‘sea hare’ if you don’t know about them yet). We then ate dinner and gave the kids options for our evening activity.

One option was to take a night snorkel, which is quite a rare opportunity. The kids on the night snorkel got the chance to see dramatically different ocean life than they did during their first snorkel of the day. At night, the brightly colored fish of the day give way to sea urchins, rays, skates, and lobsters roaming the ocean floor. The highpoint of the night dive was the bioluminescence emitted from microorganisms that live in the cove at Fox Landing. These bioluminescent organisms intensify their light output when their water is agitated, which meant our divers generated swirls of glowing water around them as they propelled themselves through the night water—the effect was spectacular.  

The other evening option for the kids was an astronomy presentation that benefitted from brilliantly shining stars on a dark, island night. The students learned about the lifespan of stars, fusion, black holes, and constellations. Exhausted from a full day, both groups reconvened in camp for a bit of conversation before heading to bed.

We rose early the next day to eat breakfast before embarking on a kayak trip that took us northerly up the coast from our home base. Just after leaving our cove, Nicola somehow spotted an octopus that had anchored itself at sea level on a rock roughly the size of a school bus. It took some wrangling for Nicola to get the octopus off the rock, but she got the cephalopod free so we could line up our kayaks to encounter an example of the smartest invertebrate on the planet. As we continued up the coast, a layer of moisture crept up on us, creating a beautiful comingling of bright sun and eerie coastal fog. After landing our kayaks on a beach where we spent some time gathering shells and playing with a volleyball, we got a good workout paddling our kayaks against the wind and current on our way back to camp.

After returning to Fox Landing, we played some camp games before spending some downtime together before dinner. We had planned a night of music and games by a beach campfire, but high winds whipped up to spoil that idea. So instead, Nicola created an ‘indoor campfire,’ which consisted of red glow sticks underneath tissues (this somewhat resembled a fire). We shared songs, told stories, and spoke about our favorite experience and biggest challenge of the trip. We also gave ‘shout outs’ to each other to acknowledge things in others we found helpful, inspiring, or entertaining.

We spent our final day of the trip in the CIMI labs, where we were able to handle small sharks, rays, and skates and learn firsthand about fish and crustacean adaptations by closely observing species in tanks. We also visited the algae lab, where we learned more about oceanic algae, including the role kelp and phytoplankton play in replenishing the earth’s oxygen supply. It was gratifying to see that the kids already knew so much of the information that Nicola had to share with us, which was a general trend throughout all of our lessons on the island.

Giving the kids the opportunity to implement and expand on knowledge they gained in class is at the heart of this trip—In fact, this idea is at the heart of all our experiential learning. Many of the students who went to Catalina will travel to Ireland tomorrow to walk in the steps of history they already studied in their British History course. Imagine what it’s like to handle a wild octopus in Catalina one week and then see the Book of Kells in Dublin the following week. Pretty amazing, right? Thanks to the hard work and creativity of our teachers, many of our students don’t have to imagine the richness of these experiences. Thanks Julia, Paul, and Randy for guiding our students on this trip! And Godspeed to Alan, Caitlin, and Lisa as they embark to Ireland with our students tomorrow!