WESTERLY — Eight-year-old Ezron Gardner leaned over an open tank of crabs, showing no hesitation as he reached in and picked up a squirming spider crab.
The sleeves of his sweatshirt were soaked with tank water, but he appeared not to notice as he showed off his find to his mother, Angelica Pond.
“Do you like it, Mom?” he asked. Pond smiled, but declined his invitation to touch it.
The interactive touch tank is part of a series of tanks highlighting local salt and freshwater species in the Broad Street office of Save the Bay’s South County Center, which opened in the spring.
In an effort to engage the community in local ecological education, the center recently began several new programs, including the Saturday morning children’s craft and story hour that Pond and her family attended last week.
Each week the program focuses on a different aspect of bay life, including turtles, sharks, stingrays, and ocean mammals like whales and seals. A book and corresponding craft teach children of varying ages about the roles each species plays in the local ecosystem.
On Nov. 23, Ezron, Trace and other children learned about turtles, reading a turtle-themed story and crafting their own origami turtles.
For Ezron and Trace, however, the touch tank was the prime attraction.
“They both love water creatures,” said Pond. “The hands-on aspect is great.”
Ezron added that “petting” the animals was his favorite part.
“I’ve touched hermit crabs before at the beach,” he said. “But not the other ones.”
While the center includes local species of crabs, fish, a snapping turtle and a mantis shrimp, Ezron’s favorite sea creature was missing.
“I like sharks because they’re big and scary,” he said. “I’ve never actually seen one in real life, though.”
Melinda Brown, outreach coordinator for the center, supervised Trace and Ezron as they grabbed for crabs and starfish, showing them how to tell the gender of the spider crabs based on the shape of their stomachs.
Brown said she hoped the programming would help spread the Save the Bay message and provide education to local residents.
For Gary Bodoff, a New York resident with a summer home in Pawcatuck, the Saturday morning event provided an opportunity for his two sons to learn and to practice one of their favorite hobbies.
“I’ve always been into origami,” explained Max, 9, who is currently reading a book about Star Wars-themed origami.
While both Max and his brother, 7-year-old Cole, were eager to craft their own origami turtles, they too were soon drawn to the touch tank, plunging their hands in to touch the crabs.
“Now that we know this is here, we’ll probably be back,” Bodoff said.
Brown said that though the turnout for the first story hour was small, she was confident more participants would come as word spread.
“It’s not about how many people come, really,” she said.
“The pillar of Save the Bay is education, so what we want is to create environmental stewards, as many or few as that may be.”
The center will also begin a series of winter cruises down the Pawcatuck River today. The trips aboard the bay’s educational vessel, coordinated in partnership with the Stonington Historical Society, provide coastal history and information on environmental issues related to the river and little Narragansett Bay.
For more information, call 401-315-2709 or visit savebay.org.