Kaya Williams ‘14 is fresh off the 21-day Sustainable Ocean Studies program, capped off by a three day, overnight sea kayaking excursion. She does not seem tired. They call her “Grandma,” but she’s barely out of Waynflete, heading into her junior year at Colby College. She’s lined up to study abroad in Turks and Caicos this spring, in order to further her understanding of marine biology, climate change, and the advocacy that might help save the world.
Brimming with enthusiasm, she can’t sit still as she tells me stories from the past three weeks, and three years ago when she attended the course as a Waynflete student. She’s a leader now, helping Program Director David Vaughn and Chewonki leader Alicia Heyburn guide a group of ten high school students along almost the entire Maine coast, exploring islands, mountains, rivers, and their interconnected ecosystems along the way. Through the “Three Lenses”—Ecological, Economic, and Cultural—these students dive deep into the marine world of the Gulf of Maine, earning academic credit, building friendships, and having a lot of fun along the way.
Like the first day of school, this trip began by filling backpacks, packing lunches, waving goodbye to parents, and pushing through the first, awkward interactions that any new group encounters. Unlike the first day of school, this group knows it will be together 24/7 for three straight weeks, and they are stuffing camp stoves and sleeping bags into their backpacks, not pencils and textbooks. Soon after the introductory lunch, any awkwardness is forgotten. There is no time to be shy or passive here. The students hit the ground running with a quick overview of basic ocean systems—they did plenty of pre-course reading to help them prep—and then pack the vans to head off on their first adventure.
Half the group is from Maine, the other half from all over and as far away as Phoenix. Kate Witt, the desert denizen, is quickly dubbed “Arizona” and the name sticks for the rest of trip. The simplest nicknames are best. There’s also “Putin,” a Duxbury, Massachusetts, native who fluidly shifts in and out of an impeccable Russian accent and always gets the group guffawing. Some of the Mainers are not from the coast (Skowhegan, Bethel, Wilton, and beyond), but went to the beach each summer of their lives. The pull of the ocean is strong, particularly in Maine, but seeing folks from across the country embrace this program with passion is inspiring. They all have a different history, but have one major quality in common: a strong commitment to (and deep interest in) the ocean.
Waynflete students are lucky to have the opportunity to study marine biology. Since marine bio is rarely offered at inland schools, most of the other students here have no school experience with the subject—just a personal fascination.More often, the vast ocean is covered briefly in an overview Biology class. This alone, along with some occasional visits to the beach, is enough to entice a willing group each summer to immerse themselves—literally and figuratively—in the ocean. It’s programs like SOS that allow interested high-schoolers to actively pursue their passions, and at a much more focused, intensive level than would ever be possible in the classroom. Through these types of programs, they often find their paths.
Kaya is spending her second summer with SOS and is focusing on Marine Policy in college. She took Marine Biology with David during her senior year at Waynflete and has been full steam ahead ever since. That’s not uncommon: one researcher the group encountered at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole was an SOS graduate. Each student interviewed has his or her sights set on coastal colleges that offer programs in Marine Bio, even though their interests vary widely within the field.
As the weeks unfold, each student finds a subject to focus on and works to create an impressive final project. This year the projects ranged from research into the population fluctuation of whale populations in the Gulf of Maine to the instability of the shellfish fishery. Students focused on problems that are currently plaguing the ocean and presented hypotheses on why the issues were happening. Some also proposed solutions—black sea bass are rapidly expanding their range northward, but perhaps this migration will inadvertently help control the invasive green crab population? Is there is an economic incentive to harvesting green crabs, simultaneously creating a new fishery and preserving existing species? As they each laid out thoroughly researched topics, a theme emerged: climate change.
In the final week, students presented their individual research projects to the group and larger Chewonki community. No matter what the project, it was clear to these students that the warming atmosphere is having a direct and major impact on the ocean in innumerable ways. It was a link that brought the group even closer together: each was able to run ideas past the others, making connections and finding solutions for their problems in relation to the rapidly warming seas. While the Gulf of Maine is a petri dish for this looming catastrophe, students like the Sustainable Ocean Studies participants are slowly but surely making a difference.
Tomorrow, after a morning of presentations, last-minute packing, and sad goodbyes (the group has promised each other they will stay in touch!), each kid will pile into a parent’s car or a bus bound for the airport. A faint scent of campfire smoke will hang in the air. Most will head inland, away from the waters that intensely held their focus for three weeks. While fatigued by their experience, their work will not stop. They are passionate and focused on marine biology research. The ocean is always on their minds, no matter how far inland they wander. Completing worthwhile, intensive research is hard work, but above all, it was fun. They put in the legwork, but the kayaking and campfires, and the s’mores and swimming, up and down the glorious coast of Maine in July are pretty nice bonuses.