Restoring Disneyland

Day four – Today I got up early so Lukas and I could get our smaller eelgrass plants out of the saltwater tank and into the fish tanks.  I divided the 72 plants into twelve bunches of equal sized plants.  Lukas arrived at 6:00 am and we carefully inserted them into the sediments. We won’t start the flushing water until we know the plants are stable and the thread for monitoring growth has been inserted.

After our initial project, we headed to the lab for the big event of the day:  The Restoration.  The 400 plants we harvested yesterday were removed from the saltwater tank, all equipment was loaded, and again personnel was assigned to vehicles.  I went with Dr. Disney in the MDIBL truck carrying the grids, tables, and live material.  At Hadley Point, we were met by our band of wonderful volunteers who quickly unloaded and carried all of the equipment to the edge of the ocean.  We will have about an hour and a half at this low tide to get this work done.

Grids were placed on the tables and hands immediately began to tie on the eelgrass plants.  It is a bit of a trick to tie the twenty plants at the right spot on the plant so that the rhizome lays on the sediments and the blade floats upward.  As we are tying, Trillium waters the plants as we want to prevent them from drying out. Once the first five grids are finished, the transplant team heads to meet Captain George.  Along with the grids, 100 plants for stapling must also be moved to the boat.  The Bowdoin girls are an important part of the transplant team as they will hopefully be using these same techniques in their attempt to restores eelgrass in the Kennebec River.  Lukas and Dr. Disney also wade out to the boat.

As the transplant team heads out into the bay, I stay with the volunteers to complete the other five grids that will soon be making their way to “the Bar.”  Hanna places our grids temporarily in the ocean to prevent drying.  Clean up is swift on this raw day and we create a makeshift waterbed in the back of the truck to transport the grids.  Once the team is back, we quickly head to “the Bar.”  On our way, the heat is turned on in our vehicles as this day is cold and raw and, crazy as it sounds, hypothermia is a concern.

At “the Bar,” the process is pretty smooth.  The five grids are placed in the water and Lukas, Theresa, and Erik, who have the stapling down to a science, quickly get the 100 plants into the sediments.  There is a small problem with the length of the biodegradable staples but they immediately come up with a solution.  After the planting, the eelgrass dance is performed to appease the aquatic plant god and bring good luck to the project :)

Cold, but satisfied, we head back to the lab for cleanup and to finish the rest of the day’s details.



Harvest and Heaven at Disneyland

Yesterday afternoon in the lab brought some interesting results from our rhizomes.  There appeared to be three categories of rhizomes:  first was the largest group that were black on the outside, somewhat mushy, and then had very distinct hollow centers;  second was the group that were black on the outside, firm, and a jelly-like center; and third, was the smallest, yet most hopeful group, that were brown on the outside, firm, with a visible healthy phloem and xylem in the center.  So is the eelgrass dead or just delayed in blooming?  Is this a phase that all eelgrass goes through like a dormancy period?  Am I on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with all theses ups and downs? Armed with this new information, discussions throughout the afternoon brought about a revised plan – plan C.

Plan C is to catch Wednesday mornings very low tide at “the Bar” in downtown Bar Harbor where there is healthy eelgrass.  At this location, we would harvest 400 plants which we would bring back to the lab.  These plants will be used in an experiment to help determine what is going on at Hadley Point where the lack of eelgrass is alarming.  We will put 100 plants on grids (10 grids each with 20 plants) and “staple” 

the remaining plants directly into the sediments using biodegradable wooden staples.  We’ll put half of the grids and stapled plants in at Hadley Point and the other half back at the Bar.  If the healthy plants grow at the Bar and at Hadley Point then perhaps it was just a single season issue.  (Last year was the warmest ocean temperatures ever recorded.)  If the plants grow at the Bar but not Hadley then there is still a problem, perhaps a nutrient deficiency.

While we are at the Bar, Lukas and I will also harvested 72 small plants and sediments (mud) to transplant into the fish tanks that I bought yesterday and we will also harvest sediments from Hadley Point.  This experiment has 6 tanks with Bar sediments and 6 with Hadley Point sediments planted with six eelgrass plants.  Lukas will monitor the growth of the plants as a quantitative approach to the health of the eelgrass.

Lukas will also collect thirty rhizomes from the healthy beds to compare with the rhizomes we looked at earlier to establish any substantial difference between the two locations.  With all of this on the plate for tomorrow, the remainder of the afternoon was a buzz with activity preparing for plan C :)



Day three in Disneyland seems, once again, more like a vacation then actual work.  At 6:00 am, Erika and Theresa from Bowdoin College  join Lukas and I at the Hegner Lab for the last minute details for the harvest.  Jane arrives and we grab all of the containers and equipment needed, assign personnel to vehicles, and hit the road.

Arrival at the Bar is heaven.  The Bar is a sandbar that connects downtown to an island during low tide.  People walk their dogs and run along this beautiful area.  The seafloor is littered with hundreds of thousands of crushed shells and sea life flourishes.  Sea gulls are picking up urchins and smashing then on rocks, balls of baby eels are swimming, and strange looking pout fish are found amongst the eelgrass and kelp.

We first visit the left of the bar where the eelgrass is relatively short.  We find that a number of the blades are flowering – preparing to drop seed.  To the right of the bar is the longer blades of eelgrass – not many flowering yet –  where the majority of the harvesting will be done.  Since so many hands are involved it doesn’t take too long for 20 bundles of 20 to be collected. The other samples needed are also soon gathered and stored in the vehicles.

Upon our return to the lab, the samples are stored in the previously filled salt water tank, suits and boots are rinsed and soaked, sediments are placed in the fish tanks, and  all other collections are moved to their proper place for closer inspection at a later time.

At this time, I switch gears to water quality monitoring.  MDIBL is responsible for a number of other programs, one most of us are familiar with is Maine Healthy Beaches.  This monitoring program looks at several locations around the Island and tests for a number of items and, particularly, for bacteria.  If the bacteria exceeds the EPA’s (Environmental Protection Agency) standard, the beach may be posted with a warning of potential contamination or totally closed for any and all water contact.  Trillium, a gifted home-schooled volunteer, takes me through the testing process. It has been a while since I have been in a lab this sophisticated and some of the new equipment is amazing.  I especially enjoy the heat sealing machine that takes the samples and turns them into the coolest little packets :)

Shortly after this session, I have the opportunity to do Phytoplankton monitoring with Hannah, another brilliant young intern.  Since we are nearing high tide, we head to town to the local dock.  At the dock, we check ocean and air temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrogen, and also gather phytoplankton.  Hannah has volunteers that do similar test with her at other points on the island and she monitors and documents all of the findings.

Returning to the lab brings us back into the midst of planning for tomorrow’s Restoration Project.  While we harvested all of the material today, tomorrow we must get it all back in the water.  Even more people join the fun – George who will drive the boat, Trillium, Ben, Asa, and several other volunteers.

As I head to bed, my takeaways from the day are threefold:

one – while lab work can be monotonous in the repeating of the same tests, it rarely is boring with all that goes on.

two – these essential programs for the State of Maine are at the mercy of gracious and kindhearted volunteers who truly care about our environment.

three – While this location often makes you think you are vacationing, I am really tired :)  I won’t need Tinkerbell to sing me to sleep tonight.





The Characters in Disneyland

As I head out to Hadley Point with Dr. Disney and Nel, our student volunteer, noticeably missing from our cast of characters is our intern, Lukas, whom has overslept.  I am, once again, dressed in my snug fitting, ever attractive wetsuit.  The plan for this morning’s super low tide (-1.8 feet) is to look for remaining rhizomes from three separate locations that we can bring back to the lab for DNA analysis.  The DNA analysis is much easier with the leaf or blade of the plant, but since there isn’t any, we are resorting to the rhizome.  Nel, brilliant volunteer from Thomaston, has twelve baggies with paper towels to remove as much mud as possible and for observation once we get back to the lab, and three baggies of silica gel desiccant for storage of another set of rhizomes to be used later.


Upon arrival at Hadley Point, we gather all of our equipment into the floating bucket and head into the ocean.  The water was actually much warmer than I had predicted – cold really isn’t my thing.  Upon entering our first location (East #1),  we began looking for the rhizomes.  Several were present, but their condition was of concern.  While some appeared to be slightly brown, others were black and crumbled easily. As we finished the first location, Lukas appeared on his bike, ready to join the fun – sans the wetsuit and very apologetic :)


Heading into our other locations (West #1, #2, and #3), we discover that we have forgotten to take a GPS reading, but decided to do that when we return to the car. As the number of rhizomes appears to be fewer and fewer, I notice so many other characters in the ocean.  The number of sea anemones is astounding!!!   Have they eaten the eel grass?  The mussels, clams, and crabs seem abundant.  There was even a jellyfish floating around.


And even a mystery character – do you know who this is?


It is some sort of ocean sea slug – I’ll see if I can find the genus and species tomorrow.

At our last location, West #3, we meet the best character of the day, Richard Taylor, local legend.  Richard, aka The Rat, has been lobstering, clamming, and eeling in “these parts” for decades.  His anecdotal observations throughout the years, verifies some of Dr. Disney’s work.  He also spoke of his own citizen science work with baby clams and attempting to grow them in several different locations throughout the bay.  His storytelling and dry humor make him the quintessential “Maina.”



Upon our return to the lab, suits are washed, plans are made for tomorrow  and microscopes are set up as we are now ready to look at our harvest.  Can’t wait to see what the rhizomes reveal.

Disneyland Destroyed

Mt Desert Island Biological Lab offers one of those dream opportunities that science teachers truly love:  come to the lab for a week,  in a simply stunning setting,  and learn about Dr. Jane Disney’s eelgrass research in and around Bar Harbor.  Well this seemed like a no-brainer.  As a matter of fact, I felt  like I had won the Superbowl and was about to shout, “I’m going to Disneyland!!”

Upon my arrival in the Magic Kingdom, I was directed to the Oaks – a lovely cabin that is about 60 feet from the ocean – were I will be staying.  The cabin has three bedrooms with each room sleeping two.  I happen to be staying in room #1 that has an ocean-front view that is to die for and, no room mate.  One of the other rooms is home to a visiting medical student from Amsterdam who is studying cellular research,  as part of his required courses,  for the next 6 weeks.

This morning I met Dr. Disney at her lab in the Hegner building.  Dr. Disney has been studying eel grass (Zostera marina) by restoring beds in locations around Bar Harbor.  Eelgrass is a primary photosynthetic producer that acts as a nursery for a number of economically important species (mussels, clams, cod, etc) in sub-tidal zones.  Without the eelgrass, these populations would decline.  She has had great success in the past seven years.  However, this morning she regrettably informed me that there was no more eelgrass in several of her restored areas.  She has been monitoring the sites and, for whatever reason, it is not growing this year. What???  Destruction in Disneyland???  So what’s a teacher to do if there is no eelgrass?  And what happened to it?

Obviously, Dr. Disney is also greatly concerned as her work for the last six years, and the grant that funds the research, all revolves around eelgrass.  So onto Plan B.  First a meeting with all the other members of her team (visiting researching teachers, Ted Taylor and Dr. Jen Adams, from Bangor High, student interns, fellow scientists, and volunteers).  Next an opportunity for each person to talk about what they were going to do and what help they might need from the other team members.  There’s worm research, mapping, infaunal collections, citizen scientists initiatives, and of course, trying to figure out what happened to the eelgrass.  Assignments were handed out and Lukas, student intern, and I will be joining Dr. Disney tomorrow at 5:45 am for a trip to Hadley’s point to look at the area and harvest some of the few remaining grasses.  (This does involve wearing a wetsuit which,  I must confess, is an outfit that makes me incredibly happy that I don’t know anyone around here.)  On Thursday, we’ll go back out with some volunteers from Bowdoin College and put out a few hundred grids to see if perhaps a nutrient deficit is what caused the die off. Ted Taylor from Bangor suggested perhaps a point source problem so on Friday morning, I may be kayaking along the shoreline looking for eelgrass  . . . wow this is a job I could get us to doing!

After the meeting, teams broke up to start whatever work was necessary to get their week underway.  I had the dubious task of finding 5 gallon fish tanks in Ellsworth that we could use for experiments –  found 7 and ordered 5 more for pick up later this week. We also looked for space to place these tanks and found some outside the Neal building.  While I was there, I had an opportunity to see research that is being done on Fundulus heteroclitus – the northern killifish.  This really cool fish has eggs that can be out of the water for 14 days – be virtually dessicated – and have just a bit of water added to them – and they hatch.  Not only is this just mind blowing, the eggs are gorgeous under the microscope!!

As the day comes to a close, I’m heading to bed early to be up and ready for the morning low tide.  And while I may not have the opportunity to study eelgrass restoration, I am excited to begin to figure out what happened to it.