"Heave," commands Doug Dickey, as the spray of the Chesapeake Bay splashes his blue windbreaker.
"Ho," answers a line of students, giddy and slightly damp from a day away from the traditional desks and chalkboards at Annapolis' Bates Middle School. Hand over hand, they work together to haul in the oyster dredge they had trailed behind the Stanley Norman, one of the last skipjacks still sailing the bay.
Each time Dickey, an educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation,yells, the seventh-graders tug on the rope. Eventually, the dredge -- a chain-link basket attached to a metal rake -- emerges from the greenish water.
Pulling the dredge on board, Captain Blake Glaeser spills the contents onto the deck and shows the students how to cull for oysters, separating out the sea squirts and mussels that attach themselves to an oyster bar.
The results disappoint the students. After six passes at Hackett's Bar, a charted oyster bar outside Whitehall Creek, they have found less than a dozen oysters.
The dearth ofoysters segues perfectly into the day's lesson: The bay ain't what it used to be. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a non-profit environmental group, uses the 89-year-old Stanley Norman, which moors at the Annapolis City Dock, to bring that message home to about 150 school groups every year.
Students learn about the effects of everyday activities, such as flushing the toilet, on the bay and aquatic life. They also garner firsthand experience with skipjacks, the commercial fishing boats that once sailed the bay by the thousands, and the modern travails of Maryland's watermen.
"It's a day out of school to start with, and then we try to sneak some education in the backdoor," Dickey says. "The idea is the more body parts involved, the better. If youcan see it, touch it and smell it, you're learning something."
Betsy Petrie, a senior foundation educator, says: "If you ask a lot of these kids, they've never been on a boat. They've never been on the bay. It all comes together once you're out here. It can make such a difference in your awareness and your thoughts about the bay than if you've never seen it."
A dozen Bates Middle School youths sailed with the Stanley Norman for six hours Thursday.
About 1:30, the Batesclass huddles at midship as Glaeser explains that the oyster population has dwindled dramatically over the past 100 years. Disease, pollution and commercial harvesting have each played a role, he says.
"Of those three things, which is the easiest to stop?" Glaeser asks. "Harvesting."
Scientists with the foundation recommended last summer that the state ban oyster harvesting and hire watermen to help restore the bay and its oyster bars. Watermen disagree that harvesting isa problem. A ban, they say, would not solve the bay's woes.
Oysters are important to the bay for two reasons, Glaeser says. They provide watermen with a livelihood, but, he says, they also are natural filters, cleansing the water as they eat. A single oyster can filter 50gallons of water a day.
A hundred years ago, oysters were plentiful enough to filter the entire bay every three days, a task that now requires an entire year, Dickey says.
Asking for volunteers to taste the popular delicacy, Dickey wields a shucker's knife and prys an oyster open. The seventh-graders look about nervously until finally Travon Harris, 12, steps forward and slurps the raw oyster from the shell in Dickey's hand.
Immediately, he scrunches his face and runs for the side rail. "It tasted good, but it just didn't feel right in my mouth," Travon says with a sheepish grin.
Undaunted, he adventurously wiggles his way through his classmates for a second taste. "Hmmm," he says the second time, swirling the oyster in his mouth, "It tastes like . . . grapes a little bit. I want another one."
Martha Lehman, Travon's science teacher at Bates, says the class has been studying the effects of construction on nearby Spa Creek and the bay. But, she says, Thursday's expedition may have brought the lesson home.
"I brought some oysters to the classroom, but that wasn't the same as being here," Lehman says. "They'll remember this much more than reading it out of a book."