'How Are Sea Sponges Alive If They Have No Guts?' Thousands Join Virtual Dockside Discovery Day

May 14, 2020

The 10th annual Dockside Discovery Day was held at the Robert ‘Bobby’ Storrs Small Boat Harbor and coordinated by Melissa Good from the Alaska Sea Grant program.
Credit KUCB Staff

''[An] old scuba diver enjoying watching from Pittsburgh, PA,'' ''Hi from Summerville Oregon,'' ''Enjoying this from Wisconsin,'' read a few of the comments on KUCB's live Facebook event for Dockside Discovery, which took place on Monday in Unalaska.

Like many events this spring—in an effort to observe various health mandates that restrict social gatherings and proximity—Unalaska's Dockside Discovery Day took place virtually.

The 10th annual event was held at the Robert 'Bobby' Storrs Small Boat Harbor and coordinated by Melissa Good from the Alaska Sea Grant program. Along with the help of KUCB, University of Alaska Bristol Bay Campus learning center coordinator Jill Spetz, and local teachers and volunteer scuba divers—Riley Spetz and Mary Heimes—Good spent the day teaching Unalaska students and viewers from across the country about local marine life, fisheries, and much more.

From the docks of Dutch Harbor, the event reached over 7000 people. For some, in the midst of coronavirus-related school closures and social distancing mandates, it was a refreshing reminder of their teachers' faces and voices. For others, tuning in from places like Minnesota, it was a chance to get a taste of a distant and enigmatic world.

''So this is a seaweed. We call this one witch's hair,'' explained Good. ''And someone asked previously, can you eat seaweed, and is seaweed poisonous? We don't have any poisonous seaweed, but witch's hair produces sulfuric acid. It's the way it defends itself. So you don't want to eat it. You want to just leave the witch's hair there.'' 

Good described the creature with fervor and animation, as she delicately draped a chunk of greenish-brown, stringy seaweed across her palm.

While students would normally attend the event in person, many participated through Facebook and Channel 8 TV to ask questions, which were read and answered live.    

''Our first live question is: 'What happens if the diver comes up too fast?''' said Jill Spetz, reading some of the questions posted to Facebook during the event. '''Mateo wonders, what does a starfish like to eat?''' '''How are sea sponges alive if they have no guts?'''

Clad in smooth neoprene and bulky dry suits, Riley Spetz and Mary Heimes braved the frigid Bering Sea waters, while Good emphatically described and examined the creatures they unearthed.

''So a lot of things don't want to eat sponges because of all of the little tiny pieces of glass that are in it. But what sponge is good for is making homes and camouflage,'' said Good. ''So if we look in the tank here, what we have is a decorator crab. So this crab was living on this sponge. And he picked off little tiny pieces of sponge and he stuck it to himself.''

With practiced tenderness and reverence, Good held the creatures up for the camera, contemplating physical nuance, revealing signs of centuries of adaptation.

Despite her scientific methodologies, Good's passion for marine sciences fostered an air of engaging enthusiasm and charming presentation. 

''You could put decorator crabs with anything. You could put him with a piece of pizza, and he would take those pieces of pizza and stick them all over him,'' she explained. ''And you wouldn't know he was there-you'd just think it was more pizza.''

Although students were unable to attend this year's Dockside Discovery in person, Good encouraged everyone to get out and explore the marine life around them.

''Without diving, you can see sea creatures too. So when there's a low tide, you can go tide pooling. So look for those rocky areas when the tide is really out,'' suggested Good. ''And go and look in the pools that are still there-those are the tide pools, and you'll find creatures in there.''

However, she reminded marine explorers to be respectful of the tide pools and creatures they encounter.

''You can lift rocks up. Oftentimes there's creatures under those rocks, but be very careful,'' warned Good. ''You can pick creatures up, but do it very gently, and always put them back where you found them.''

Dockside Discovery will air again this Saturday, May 16, at 10 a.m. on Channel 8 TV. You can also find the live feed on KUCB's Facebook page.