It’s Friday and the Sapphire Coast Marine Discovery Centre is humming with the sounds of aquaria burbling, toddlers from the local play group laughing, a research team from the ANU, and the centre’s staff who are quickly turning this once near-derelict space into something quite special.
The Eden-based centre is one of a network of similar centres dotted around Australia’s coast.
Its purpose? To promote understanding of the temperate oceans and coasts by offering learning and knowledge experiences.
This morning, that learning experience is for the Eden Play Group, who may give every appearance of running amok but who are loving every minute of their marine adventure as they pick up and examine shells, dried starfish, and seaweed and other bits of flotsam and jetsam from the beachcombing display.
Eyes become huge and starfish legs weirdly distorted as chubby fingers examine them under hand-held magnifying glasses.
Marine scientist Sheree Epe uses her own experience as a mum, along with some help from popular kids’ fiction and animated TV series, the Octonauts, to help the toddlers and pre-schoolers learn about escape-artist Morticia the gloomy octopus.
“The kids love her. Morticia helps the kids learn about camouflage and how she can change colour, and how - because she doesn’t have any bones – she can squeeze herself into and through a very small hole,” Sheree says.
“We also learn about shells, how the animal makes the shell, just like a snail does,” she says.
Sheree keeps Morticia’s sad future to herself. The octopus has laid eggs in her aquarium and, like all of her female gloomy octopus kind, will only live long enough to see them hatch after which she will stop eating and eventually die.
Yet even in death she will help to build what we know about her species. Her DNA will be donated to a research project on the gloomy octopus being undertaken in Tasmania.
You don’t have to come to Eden to get the marine discovery centre learning experience.
Education officer Jillian Riethmuller has just returned from taking the ‘show’ on the road.
During the week she so enthralled around 350 primary school students at Narooma Primary School that many of them now want to follow in her footsteps and become marine scientists.
“The best part of my job is working with the kids and seeing their faces when you tell them something new and exciting, like an anemone’s mouth and bum are one and the same,” Jill laughs.
“When I asked them at the end of the presentation ‘who wants to be a marine scientist?’ they all threw their hands up,” she smiles.
Jill is proud of the centre’s 2012 record of school visits, a new program that the ex-Questacon employee was brought on board to run.
“This year we’ve had 14 schools come and visit us and I’ve been out to 13 schools in the region,” Jill said.
The touch tank goes on the road with her, becoming the centrepiece of Crazy Critters, an hour and a half of solid fun and learning that includes lots of hands getting wet and songs such as the crowd-pleasing anemone song.
In addition to the roadshow, Jillian and her colleagues take regular tours around Eden such as the very popular rocky shore rambles, snorkels and fish dissections back in the laboratory.
This week, there’s not a fish or scalpel in sight in the lab.
Instead, visiting academics from the Australian National University (ANU) Research School of Earth Sciences are onsite for five weeks doing field research.
Steve Eggins (PhD) leads the team.
“We’re here in Eden trying to grow tiny zooplankton called foraminifera,” he says.
“Why?” I ask.
“We’re trying to find out how they respond to climate change, specifically to changes in temperature and also how they respond to increases in acidification in the oceans due to CO2 absorption. We want to know how this particular bug will survive.
“There’s a study that suggests these organisms won’t be able to form their shells with increasing acidification and may not survive. We’re testing an alternative hypothesis that they’re more sensitive to temperature than acidity.”
Down one long side of the laboratory, large plastic tubs containing multiple glass beakers are growing the zooplankton at different temperatures and different water acidities. At another end of the lab, brine shrimp or sea monkeys are being grown to feed the zooplankton.
“Nobody has ever grown this zooplankton before in the southern hemisphere,” Stephen Eggins says.
“Eden is right on the doorstep of the southern ocean so it’s perfectly placed to get tropical samples of these plankton coming from the north and colder water southern ocean ones from down south.”
With an impressive array of around $150,000 worth of equipment brought with them from Canberra, scattered around the lab, the research team look right at home.
But they are also enjoying getting out on the water to collect their samples.
It’s this type of ‘fieldwork’ that inspired research assistant and doctoral candidate Kate Holland to get into marine science.
“I went from Caroline Chisholm High School in Canberra to Tuggeranong College and then to ANU to study science. In the first year we got to do a field trip where we went out on a boat and that really grabbed me. I just thought it was so interesting that you can go into the field and do stuff. I’ve been down here a week. It’s great, the other day when we were collecting more of our plankton we saw whales and seals and dolphins - it was the best.”
The third member of the research team, and another PhD student is Graham Nash. Graham, an ex-wheat, beef and sheep farmer from Parkes for 20 years, is studying the Sydney cockle as an ‘archive’ for environmental change.
“This is a bit of a departure from what I was doing. I was really inspired by Steve and the ability of others like Steve to make assumptions about the past based on these sea creatures,” Graham said.
Back in the administrative office, CEO Jenny Robb is thrilled with the news that the centre has won a grant from the Mumbulla Foundation to buy a second MICROEye microscope and small projector. The MICROEye is so easy to use even little kids can put specimens under it and project them up on the big screen for easy viewing.
It may only be a small grant, but for a centre that relies on grants, membership and attendance fees and some rental income for survival, every cent counts.
With a healthy number of bookings for upcoming events, including a packed house for the new shore birds workshops, that future is becoming more and more certain. And that’s good news for our temperate oceans.