Bluffton and Hilton Head Island middle school students are trading textbooks for a 45-foot catamaran this week as they explore the ecology of local estuaries.
Eighth- and ninth-graders from H.E. McCracken Middle School caught shrimp, squid, a blue crab and several species of fish in a trawl net Monday while aboard the S.C. Department of Natural Resource's Education Vessel Discovery.
They caught spadefish, flounder and Atlantic bumper, but no fish impressed students more than the striped burrfish -- a puffer fish that inflated when caught.
"I'd never seen one in real life," said student Haley Kohler.
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The fish has small fins and isn't very fast, said Kattie McMillan, the boat's education specialist. But its colors help it blend into its environment and it scares predators when it suddenly puffs up to double in size.
"You're like the Incredible Hulk," she said.
The DNR catamaran is stationed in Bluffton through Thursday to take groups of students on two-hour tours through the Port Royal Sound estuarine system. The program is funded by private grants and revenue from state fishing licenses.
The vessel normally operates out of Charleston and the ACE Basin, but the program has expanded to other parts of the state in recent years, McMillan said. Though it has visited Beaufort before, this is the boat's first trip to the Hilton Head and Bluffton area, she said.
Susan Dee, who teaches environmental studies and biology at McCracken Middle School, said she's tried to bring the program to Bluffton for years.
"Getting the kids out on the water, it's a different perspective," she said. "I try to teach them this with pictures and things, but it's nothing like being here."
McMillan talked to students Monday about local wildlife, saying the area's estuaries are second only to the rain forest in biodiversity. She pointed out oyster beds, pelicans and bald eagles and gave fun facts about the different species.
Oysters, she said, keep local waters healthy by filtering 50 gallons per day. Pelicans, she said, always dive for food on the same side -- like humans, they are either right-sided or left-sided. Bald eagles, she said, have such great eyesight they could read a newspaper headline from a mile away.
"I like being out on the water," said ninth-grader Thea Smith. "It's an escape from school."