sea lab

Golden Elston holds a baby shark. Dauphin Island Mobile Sea Lab stopped by Angie Hurst's 4th grade classroom at Oxford Elementary School to let kids learn about the ocean and all the horrifying monsters that surely dwell within it through hands-on activities. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

How many tentacles does an octopus have?

If you guessed eight, like some fourth-grade students at Oxford Elementary School did Thursday afternoon in the classroom of Angie Hurst, you'd be mistaken. Octopi don't have any tentacles, according to Greg Graeber, a marine educator from Dauphin Island Sea Lab, who arrived earlier that morning in the lab’s BayMobile. 

Octopi use their arms to push themselves along the sea floor while they hunt for crab. It's squid that have tentacles. Squid are swimmers, he said, and so are the fish they eat. So when they want to grab hold of the fish — “They have to have something to shoot out and grab those fish swimming by,” Graeber shouted, springing at the students with a preserved squid in his hand. The kids arranged in front of him, sitting cross-legged on the floor, gasped and flinched and laughed. 

Behind and beside him, on five or six tables throughout Hurst’s classroom, were dozens of other preserved critters from the briny blue, including sharpnose sharks, stingrays, coral that looked like a cross between brains and ramen, a giant turtle shell and the cast of “SpongeBob SquarePants” — sponges, starfish, crab and plankton — minus the squirrel. 

He taught the kids several facts, like the difference between poison and venom — poison is ingested or absorbed, venom is injected. An octopus can fit through any space it can fit its beak into. Sharks grow new teeth every few days. 

After the presentation, Graeber set the kids loose to touch and hold anything they wanted. They were caught between awe and revulsion and fear and excitement. 

“Eww, what is that?” asked student KaLazarus Harrison, poking at an eel. He touched it and shrieked and jumped back from the table. It felt pretty weird, he later confided. 

Esther Hong, another fourth-grader, was excited about the crustaceans. 

“I just touched a crab for the first time,” she told Hurst. 

Graeber said after his presentation that the sea life was preserved with rubbing alcohol rather than formaldehyde, making it safe to touch. The animals are long-lasting, he said. Graeber pointed out a toadfish on one of the tables — a squat, whitish fish with a face like its namesake — that had been in his presentations since he started teaching 17 years ago. 

He said not much had changed in terms of teaching children about the sea. He takes the program on the road from the lab; it was in DeArmanville and Coldwater this week, too, Hurst said. It might be going to Oxford High School, she added. 

Graeber did note that there were more girls and women interested in marine science now. He said it was only anecdotal, but he figured there would be about a 60/40 split between female and male students entering Dauphin Island’s summer camps. He said the girls are often bolder than the boys. 

“They’re often more into it than the boys, when it comes to dissection,” he said. 

Dauphin Island is at the far southern reach of Alabama in Mobile Bay, about a dozen miles south of Mobile. The Sea Lab is a cross between a research laboratory, summer camp and aquarium, hosting classes and camps for students K-12, programs for college students and professional development training classes for marine scientists. 

Hurst said she learned about Dauphin Island when her son, Zach, now a seventh-grader, took an interest in marine biology. She was a camp counselor for two weeks over the summer, she said, when she made the connections that led to Graeber visiting her classroom.

“I fell in love with the island and he fell in love with the island,” she said. “I learned so much and was able to bring back so much of it to the kids.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.