The Voyage of the Osprey: Learning Aabout the Bay


November 08, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

At 9 o'clock on a raw gray November morning this past week, fifteen of Joan Johnson's better students, ninth and tenth graders from Northern High School in Baltimore, come straggling across the pavement by the National Aquarium toward the white workboat lying quietly at the bulkhead.

The boat is the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Osprey, built i Rock Hall in 1979 especially for the foundation's education program, then just getting under way. She is skippered this day by Sharon (Sia) Moesel. Brendan Sweeney of the CBF education staff is aboard as mate.

Ms. Johnson, a 26-year veteran of the city schools who teaches environmental science, has done this many times before. She has an air of resigned but absolute authority. At times she addresses her group of young men and women, some of them fairly large, as "Babies" -- but without sounding the least bit condescending.

Since Osprey was launched, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's education program has grown steadily, and now more than 30,000 students a year, mostly from Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, go on CBF field trips in order to learn something first-hand about the watershed in which they live.

Some of these trips are ashore, in marshes or along stream valleys, but most of them are afloat, in canoes, in workboats like ++ Osprey, and even aboard skipjacks. A few include overnights at CBF facilities on Smith Island in Maryland or Tangier and Fox Islands in Virginia. In summer, when school is out, CBF runs trips and seminars for teachers and other adults interested in environmental education.

None of this is done for free, of course. The state and District governments contract with CBF, a non-profit organization, for its educational services. Budgetary constraints in recent years have been felt by these programs, but the field trips have been so successful, and have attracted such a broad political and academic following, that they've long since moved from the category of expendable services to essential ones.

For the Osprey and her crew, this cruise is fairly typical, considering the time of year. Before setting out, Captain Moesel and Mr. Sweeney give each student the Latin name of a Bay creature -- morone saxatilis, crassostrea virginica, mya arenaria and so forth -- and the assignment of finding out, from the reference books aboard, what it is.

Out through the industrial landscape the boat goes, idling past what used to be the Allied Chemical plant, past Domino Sugar, past car carriers and container ships, past Fort McHenry and out toward the Francis Scott Key Bridge. By now the researchers are getting results. "I'm a rockfish! I'm an oyster! I'm a soft-shell clam!"

In the Middle Branch, the Osprey drags a trawl net through the murky water. This produces, among other things, a dead oyster, a lively silverside, and a little female blue crab about as big as a half-dollar. Earlier in the year, Mr. Sweeney says, trawls in the harbor often brought up little rockfish, but as the water has cooled they've moved out.

Water samples are taken and analyzed, and there is some encouraging news. Oxygen levels, always higher in the winter, are up substantially -- to 10 parts per million, ample to support most marine life. But on the other hand the mud from the harbor bottom is a rancid and lifeless black ooze.

In a little cove in South Baltimore, as the anchor goes down and the lunches come out, there is another display of natural vitality in an unlikely place. A red-tailed hawk flies by. Cormorants perch on old pilings. Seven great blue herons line the rubble-strewn shore of a marshy little island, and there are at least a dozen ducks in the area, including a pair of buffleheads.

So what conclusions have Ms. Johnson's students reached at this point in their day on the water? When Brendan Sweeney asks, Brian Barnes, a burly ninth-grader wearing a University of Nevada Las Vegas hat, gives the question some serious thought. Baltimore's harbor, he says, "is damaged. But it's still supporting life, and it still has a chance to rejuvenate." The answer is so eloquent that everyone applauds.

On the return to the Inner Harbor, the group is quieter, and new knowledge is on display. Some passengers now know port from starboard, and why some buoys are green and others red. Captain Moesel lets those who wish to steer take the helm. By early afternoon, the Osprey is back at the bulkhead, and Ms. Johnson collects her students and heads out.

So, are on-the-water, hands-in-the-mud programs of this sort worthwhile, or are they irrelevant in the face of the great problems we all face?

This is perhaps not the place to get an impartial answer. But it seems to me that what Brian had to say about the harbor holds true as well for the larger community in which we live. It may be damaged, but it still supports life, and it still has a chance to rejuvenate.

As potential agents of rejuvenation, Ms. Johnson's students look promising. And it can't hurt that a few of them have learned something about life in the Chesapeake and along its edge, have seen a crab swim and a heron fly, and have picked up a silverside minnow and felt it wiggle in their hands.

Peter Jay, whose column appears here each week, is a trustee of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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