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Swan's Island

August 07, 2019
By Office of Communications

It is as if the ferry Captain Henry Lee travels back in time over the course of the six-mile trip from Bass Harbor, Maine to Swan’s Island. The island is just as you think it would be: a place of raw beauty with a pace of life directed by the tides, gulls flying overhead, the smell of the sea in the air, and a horizon dotted with islands. 

This spring, nine students had the opportunity to participate in a science immersion project on Swan’s Island. Students worked with marine biology and environmental science teacher Ms. Erika Rhile and Dr. Peter Petraitis, biology professor emeritus from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Students were introduced to fieldwork in the intertidal zone of the island. Their research findings contributed to long-term baseline research for a National Science Foundation grant-funded study. The research project, focused on the ecological mechanisms that maintain stands of algae and beds of mussels and barnacles in the Gulf of Maine as distinct, self-sustaining communities, is in its 17th year. Essentially, researchers are investigating what makes certain areas of the shore between the high and low tide marks become fertile ground for rockweed, mussels, or barnacles. 

The work at the various sites across the island is at the mercy of tides; only when it was low tide did the work begin. Ms. Rhile and Dr. Petraitis, the principal investigator, led the group of students from site to site along the shore. The task of spotting the resin disks and ceramic tiles screwed into the rocks under the thick piles of seaweed draped across the stoney shore seemed akin to finding a needle in the haystack for the students. But Rhile and Petraitis know these sites well. They have worked along these shores for over twenty years. 

Ms. Rhile knew the shortcut through the woods to Fine Sand Beach and navigated the group over the granite outcropping to the wide swath of rockweed on the edge of the tidal pool. Almost instinctively, she directed the group to just the right rock. Trying not to slip, crouched on their knees, the students searched for the resin disks and ceramic tiles below the Ascophyllum nodosum and Fucus vesiculosus. Pushing aside the fronds, students placed quadrats on the rocks and called out counts for different species, while other students recorded the data. Once the number of mobile and non-mobile species were recorded, the resin disks and tiles were removed and tucked away securely. The students examined these under a microscope back at Petraitis’ house, a turn-of-the-last-century white clapboard house on the north side of the island. 

The resin disks are handmade tools of the trade used to mimic the rocks upon which baby mussels land after a swirling journey through the ocean. The handmade ceramic tiles are about two inches square with a grid imprinted on each one. Under the microscope, the students counted baby barnacles, mussels, and other species on these landing spots. Groups of students used the two microscopes set up in a room at the back of the house while Ms. Rhile entered data on her laptop, assisted by a student, at the kitchen table. One student called for Rhile to confirm his observation that no barnacles were on the tiles he examined under the microscope. Rhile checked and confirmed that the tile was empty. All of this student’s tiles were empty.

Over a family-style dinner at the dining room table, just off the original 121 year-old kitchen, Dr. Petraitis talked to the students about his research. He said his data show that mussels have seen a steady decline in the years he has been conducting research. He said, “mussels aren’t forming because of the acidification of the Gulf of Maine and gastropods are experiencing the same thing.” 

This year, the numbers were low all around. “Part of the Swan's Island trip is learning about the interconnectedness of a community based upon the ocean. What we see in the tide pools is a microcosm of what's going on out in the ocean,” said Ms. Rhile. “This spring's lack of barnacle recruitment led to some hypotheses of what that might mean on a grander scale. If their free-swimming larva are being affected in the water column, what does that mean to other species’ larva, like lobsters?” she said.

“From my perspective, I love offering this immersion since it gives students a real sense of what science truly is -- the tedious data entry, the dirty fieldwork, the exciting finds...they are all a part of the reality of research. Although most kids come away with a sense of ‘I wish school was like this every day!’, some kids also get a feeling of ‘this isn't my cup of tea’ - and that's great, too,” said Rhile. 

While the research is focused on the natural communities of mussels competing with barnacles, there was another community being cultivated around the shared meals, on hikes across the island, and during fieldwork over the three days. This experience created deeper relationships among the students and with their teacher. In fact, retired science teacher Hank St. Pierre served as chef on this trip because he enjoyed these trips so much in the past, and he had the chance to reconnect with many students he taught. 

On the drives from site to site, many of the islanders recognized the “Stag Van.” Ms. Rhile, a long-time summer resident on the island, stopped a number of times to exchange a quick hello and share updates with island residents. Just 300 reside on the island over the long Maine winters and lobstering is the primary occupation. 

Over the course of the three days, Rhile gave the students a sense of what island life was like: the planning involved when there is only a small market on the island, the logistics needed to head off island including the string of cars parked along Ferry Street, why restaurants have a hard time surviving on the dry island, and the impact changes in the ocean have on islanders. The Maine Master Naturalist couldn’t help but point out the best spots for chanterelles and shared some friendly advice to avoid stepping on the skunk weed, “it really smells, trust me.” These conversations exposed the students, many staying on a Maine island for the first time, to a community in Maine with an umbilical connection to the ocean that surrounds it. 

Ms. Rhile also shared her story of how she ended up working on research on the intertidal zone on a small island off the coast of Maine because she was open to an opportunity, one that certainly transformed her life. A Pennsylvania-native, she was studying biology in college, visiting Swan’s Island one summer, when a chance encounter with Dr. Petraitis at the island post office began a series of events that eventually led to their 23-year working relationship.

There is a lesson there, too, outlined in the Grad at Grad: being open to growth. She said that this immersion trip, “introduces students to something that either they fall in love with or don't,” and this “is a life lesson. Either way, the students are involved in tangible results--publications where they and Cheverus High School are acknowledged.” 

In fact, the Cheverus student’s ongoing involvement in this research has been recognized and lauded by NSF grant reviewers: “the involvement in this research by high school students led by their teacher is highly admirable.” Still another reviewer observed, “The inclusion of a high school teacher and high school students each year goes far beyond many NSF funded projects that I have reviewed.”

Ms. Rhile’s passion for her work, the outdoors, and the small, “magical” island off the coast of Maine is a gift she gives each student who participates in the Swan’s Island marine biology trip. It is a lesson outside the classroom that educates the whole person. These students had a chance to learn about the day-to-day work of a marine biologist, but also experienced life on a Maine island first-hand. With Ms. Rhile’s guidance, the boys and girls witnessed the beauty and grandeur of our state and the important role the ocean plays in the Maine way of life and had a real-life science experience. 


Click the photo above to see more photos from this Swan's Island marine biology immersion trip this past spring. 
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