WESTERLY — They were hoping to find sharks, whales and mermaids but the 24 students aboard the Elizabeth Morris — Save the Bay’s 46-foot education vessel — were perfectly satisfied to find instead a cunner, a tautog, and a black-fingered mud crab.
The children, students from Tower Street Community Center’s summer learning program, were on a trawling expedition in Little Narragansett Bay as part of a joint venture summer camp program between Save the Bay, the environmental organization, and the Westerly Public Schools.
Wrapped snuggly in their blue and yellow life jackets, the children braved the morning fog and choppy waves of Little Narragansett Bay for their roles as morning marine ecologists. They were armed with binoculars, maps, and felt-tipped markers: the binoculars to search for seabirds and landmarks, the markers to play games of ocean bingo on the way to their destination near Sandy Point.
The program, designed to teach children about science, water quality, habitats, and biodiversity in the bay and the Pawcatuck River estuary, is part of the school district’s Before and After School Enrichment Program, which is offering a six-week, Monday through Friday, full-day summer learning experience to a total of 48 students this summer. The program serves English language learners and other students at risk for summer learning loss. The curriculum includes community service projects, and the students also learn about cooking and nutrition, yoga, theater and gardening.
“We’re going to discover what’s in our own backyard,” David Prescott, Save the Bay’s South County coastkeeper, told the children.
“It’s kind of scary,” said 10-year-old Lily Arnold, a student at Westerly Middle School, as she peered out at the thick gray fog surrounding the boat. “I hope it doesn’t rain.”
Leslie Dunn, an enrichment professional at Tower Street Community Center and a recent Johnson & Wales graduate, said the hands-on aspect of the program works well for the young students. “I don’t like boats much, but this is cool,” said Dunn as she nestled into a section of the boat with the other chaperones.
Nearby, 10-year-old Nancy Inthasit played a hand-clapping game with Emma Calhoun and Darby Liscum, fellow students at Westerly Middle School, while Nelson Zhou and Nelson Markus checked off pictures of buoys, gulls and terns on their bingo cards.
“OK,” called Prescott in a loud, attention-getting voice, as the boat passed Napatree Point. “Where is downtown Westerly? With fog so thick, how does the captain know where it is?”
“Radar,” the children shouted in unison.
The captain, Joe Mariani, smiled as he guided the boat through the fog with the help of colorful radar screens. A Niantic native who serves as an education specialist and camp director, Mariani is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island’s School of Marine Affairs.
Mariani has had a captain’s license since he was a senior in high school.
Ben Kidd, an 8-year-old State Street School student, stood nearby, watching the captain at work.
Once the boat reached Sandy Point, Prescott announced, to the puzzlement of the children, that the spit of land was once connected to the mainland and is now 90 percent in Rhode Island and 10 percent in Connecticut.
“It got separated in a big storm,” he told them.
Save the Bay education specialist Katie Maginel, a Missouri native who arrived in Rhode Island via the Americorps program, said working with young children aboard the Elizabeth Morris was exciting and rewarding.
“They are making connections to the sea,” she said. “When we work with the Westerly Land Trust they make a connection to the land, so they make connections to the land and the sea. The connections are important.”
Joan Serra, the director of community relations and building operations at Tower Street School, told The Sun earlier this month that by actively engaging in such activities, “students will learn the importance of preserving what we have in our local environment.”
Serra said the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative partially funds the program. Prescott led a second trip later in the week with younger, kindergarten-aged children, to check on the blue crab population in the bay.
Bridget Kubis-Prescott, Save the Bay education director, said the program’s experiential nature helps reinforce what children learn at school. (Kubis-Prescott is married to David, the coastkeeper.) She said that the addition of the Elizabeth Morris to Save the Bay’s fleet has made it possible to expand the program to Westerly. Helping children learn that they, too, are part of the ecosystem, is part of the mission.
“We work in partnership with the teachers,” she said. “We are a resource for teachers, and we train teachers, too.”
As Prescott, Maginel and other chaperones yanked on the ropes to pull up the net and empty the contents into water-filled tanks on the deck, the children burst into a spontaneous chant.
“Heave ho,” they shouted, “Heave ho.”
Kelly Hernandez, a soon-to-be 11-year-old Westerly Middle schooler, and her friend Xochilth Garcia watched with wide eyes as little crabs and fish and lots of seaweed came tumbling into the tanks.
“Please let there be a puffin, please let there be a puffin,” prayed Garcia.
“Is there a boy mermaid?” asked 9-year-old Indira Jafari.
Nearby, a smiling Eamon Ferry, a 9-year-old State Street School student, couldn’t have been happier.
“See my crab,” he asked as he balanced a dime-sized hermit crab on the tip of his forefinger. “He’s going to come out in a minute.”