ANACORTES An exciting summer recently came to a close for 59 college students studying marine biology at a beach-side campus on Rosario Bay.
The Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory, run by Walla Walla University since 1954, is open to undergraduate, graduate and research students for summer quarter courses focused on biology.
“Students aren’t going to have the opportunity necessarily to take courses like this back on the main campus, and the teachers don’t have the opportunity to teach it, so they’re always really excited,” lab director Jim Nestler said.
Students and faculty come from all over the country to study at the lab, which offers hands-on research experience, time on the water in boats or under the water equipped with diving gear.
This year, students were exposed to general biology, insects and fossils. They delved into research questions such “How will ocean acidification affect octopuses?” and “How do sea cucumbers hibernate each fall?”
Taylor Grace, an undergraduate from Maine Maritime Academy, is doing his senior research project on octopuses. His ultimate goal is to work at an aquarium doing demonstrations from inside the tanks. His backup plans are commercial diving, underwater welding and teaching.
Grace’s interest in sea creatures was sparked when he was about 6 years old. Growing up in a military family that moved around a lot, he vividly remembers a trip to the Baltimore Aquarium that set him on the path to studying marine life.
“It just fascinates me that something so small has so much intelligence in it, and it doesn’t even have any bones,” Grace said while examining an octopus called Sticky, one of dozens at the lab this summer.
Grace says octopuses are his favorite animal and he recently got his first tattoo – a colorful octopus on his left arm.
He is not alone in his enthusiasm for marine life.
“Marine organisms are so interesting,” Nestler said. “Octopus change colors (when startled), sea cucumbers lose their organs to hibernate and then grow them back, and sea stars can die off from a mystery disease and make a comeback.”
During a recent dive with students in Rosario Bay, Nestler discovered an intact, adult purple sea star. Such sightings were rare for a while following an outbreak of the sea star wasting disease.
“We’re just excited to see them coming back,” he said.
For Erica Franklin, who is from Colorado, her studies on the beach this summer centered on an eelgrass research project, which meant she had the chance to dive in cold water for the first time. She was also on a four-student team that tested crabs in a class on the behavior of marine organisms.
Washington State University zoology student Kaitlyn Jacobs was part of a research team looking at how acidity in the water, known as pH, affects the metabolism of octopuses.
Nestler said the research is important in understanding the effects of ocean acidification.
“We know there is an increase in (carbon dioxide) in the atmosphere, and we know that’s changing the pH of the ocean,” he said. “Even a small change in pH could have significant effects, but we don’t know what exactly all those effects will be.”