The Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory in Wachapreague welcomed a record-setting crowd for its 5th annual Marine Life Day event on September 22nd.
The open house provides attendees a chance to interact with hands-on exhibits detailing VIMS’ research activities and to better understand the biodiversity located within Virginia’s bay and coastal waters. Darian Kelley, who organized the event alongside fellow ESL staffer Reba Turner Smith, says, “Marine Life Day is a unique experience that allows people to hear, see, and touch the marine life that they may or may not have known live in their backyard.”
Held in the ESL’s Seawater Laboratory, the event offered microscope stations that provided visitors detailed views of corals, microalgae, sea urchins, and other critters, while small aquaria displayed various sea life. Touch tanks gave visitors the chance to handle bay scallops, small crabs, shrimp, and other animals while larger pools provided attendees with opportunities to observe eels, skates, sharks, and more. Younger audiences enjoyed interactive exhibits geared towards their interests, including arts and crafts and educational games. Throughout the event, VIMS researchers and volunteers were stationed to answer questions on topics such as seagrass restoration, invertebrates, and the technology of marine research.
This year’s event welcomed 335 guests, the most in its history. “ESL staff members counted seven other local events that were scheduled for that day, and we’re grateful that people made time to visit ours,” says Kelley. Susan Maples, VIMS Associate Director of Advancement and Director of Outreach, adds, “We’re excited that so many people got to experience the exhibits and activities provided at this year’s Marine Life Day. It really is a special occasion for everyone involved.”
Preparations for Marine Life Day began weeks before the event, as ESL staff prepared the grounds for visitors and collected local specimens for display. While Hurricane Florence briefly posed a threat to the Eastern Shore before shifting its path much farther south, Kelley says its only impact was a decrease in the diversity of the critters obtained for display. Kelley and Turner Smith also collaborated with faculty, students, and staff at VIMS’ main campus in Gloucester Point; Eastern Shore volunteers; and researchers from other schools and organizations. In fact, this year also marked the largest ever participation by staff.
Ph.D. student Dan Crear has taken part in the last three Marine Life Days, each year offering up a 12-foot observation pool whose sandbar sharks and other large fishes prove irresistible to visitors. “Parents had a hard time pulling their children away from the shark tank when it was time to leave,” says Crear.
Crear says that interacting with the public is one of the most rewarding parts of Marine Life Day; he particularly enjoys answering questions from adults and children concerned about ocean health.
Kelley’s favorite exhibit this year was made possible by videographer Michael Male, a frequent collaborator with ESL staff on documentary projects. Male donated the use of his filming tank, a large container with a picture window on its side, for a display depicting an oyster reef in the Chesapeake Bay. It took a team effort to set the scene, with Seawater Laboratory manager Chris Bentley swimming inside the tank while Kelley and Turner Smith directed his placement of items from tank-side. “Each shell, log, sponge, and pieces of grass were hand selected and placed into this tank,” says Kelley.
While Marine Life Day is a one-day undertaking, its displays and exhibits have an extended mission beyond when the doors close. More than 250 students from local Eastern Shore elementary and middle schools visited the ESL in the following week as part of organized class trips to interact with the exhibits. “Over the past three years, Marine Life Day has not only increased our educational outreach for just that one day, but also for the week following the event as students came to enjoy our setup to learn about marine life,” says Kelley.
Overall, Marine Life Day’s organizers are grateful for the combined support of volunteers and staff to make the annual occasion a success. “Marine Life Day is a great opportunity for people to learn about the research being conducted at VIMS on the Eastern Shore,” says Kelley.