Thursday, December 19, 2013

MaST Field Trip

Last week, a few of the Life Sciences staff and volunteers along with Joy from the Science Interpreting Program and Brigid from Youth & Family Programs visited Highline Community College’s Marine Science and Technology (MaST) Center. MaST is a marine biology teaching institute as well as a public aquarium.

Rus Higley, an instructor at Highline CC and the manager of the center, led us on a wonderful tour of the facility.

The MaST Center, on a pier right over Puget Sound, is able to take full advantage of its location, using water from the sound for all of their marine science programs. As you enter the building, an enormous gray whale skeleton hangs overhead. This was the gray whale that made news in 2010 when it beached in West Seattle with a stomach full of trash. Rus and his team collected this whale from the beach and processed the whole thing, removing blubber, cleaning the bones, and finally piecing the bones back together. To go along with the whale, the exhibit included the mystery of how it died and a display of the indigestible contents of its stomach.

Rus and his team are also working on some interesting projects with plastic soda bottle caps. To spread the word that the caps can’t be recycled along with the bottles, they were collecting caps and turning them into different art projects.

Next we went to a lab where volunteer Jacqui showed us gelatinous macroplankton aquiculture i.e. baby jellies that they were rearing from polyps. We couldn’t help but coo over the babies that were only a few millimeters in diameter.

The aquarium displays some incredible creatures, including a wolf eel, enormous sunflower stars, various rockfish, tiny lumpsuckers, and a Life Sciences' favorite, the grunt sculpin.

MaST even has a giant Pacific octopus! With the help of some frozen squid to distract her, Rus gave us all the chance to shake hands with an octopus, while he gallantly covered her beak to make sure no one was bitten. Soon she will grow too large to be housed there. Every year, MaST has an “Octopus Graduation” sometime around June, when they release the visiting octopus back into the sound to the delight of enormous crowds.

We were amazed at the diversity of regionally collected animals in the aquarium tanks in which water is circulated directly from the Puget Sound. While there is large filtration to make sure things like fish aren’t clogging up the pipes, very small creatures can easily pass through. This means that their tanks are covered with tubeworms, chitons, limpets, jingle shells, and even scallops that all propagated on their own. Staff never has to worry about overfeeding or underfeeding their animals, since clean, nutritious water from Puget Sound enters and returns every 15 minutes. In contrast, Pacific Science Center’s Salt Water Tide Pool is a closed system that recirculates water; we would never be able to house some of the more finicky species. Another reason MaST can have a larger variety of animals in their tanks is that they have multiple tanks. This lets them maintain tanks for predators and safe tanks for prey animals. Also, MaST can have touch-tanks and tanks for viewing only.

It was wonderful to get to explore another marine education facility in our area and see how they approach similar challenges and opportunities. The folks at Highline Community College have been longtime partners of PSC, donating many of the animals to our tide pool. We love working with them and look forward to more opportunities in the future.

The MaST Center at Redondo Beach in Des Moines, WA is open to the public every Saturday from 10am to 2pm.

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