What do you get when a pack of middle-school girls meets a squirming black sea bass?
The Hilton Head Island Middle School seventh-graders flinched and quickly lifted their feet as the fish flung itself from Jessica Tipton's hands and landed with a thud near the girls.
No worries, though. No one, not even the fish, was harmed, the girls were assured by Tipton, public information specialist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
"I'm not a fan of that," 12-year-old Cassie Maurer said of the flopping bass. The rest of the field trip, though, was definitely cool, she said.
The girls, along with about 30 other Hilton Head Middle students, were on a field trip on the Colleton River to help reinforce what they've learned in class about estuaries.
More than 250 middle-school students from Hilton Head Island Middle, H.E. McCracken Middle, Bluffton Middle and Hilton Head Preparatory School will take the field trip this week. It includes trawling the river for marine life, a nature walk and lessons at the Waddell Mariculture Center.
The trips are sponsored by the Port Royal Sound Foundation, Lowcountry Master Naturalists and DNR, and are free for students.
Science teacher Deborah Colella said this is the third year she's taken students on the trip, which fits in with her classroom lessons. As Tipton quizzed the students about salinity in an estuary and how that affects wildlife, the students raised their hands and eagerly shouted answers.
"They will remember things from this trip much longer than anything I've told them in the classroom," Colella said.
After checking the students' marine knowledge, Tipton pulled in the nets and started showing examples of the creatures the students had studied. The students ooh'd and ahh'd over what DNR Capt. Tom Salisbury said was one of the best hauls this week -- three bonnethead sharks, blue crabs, shrimp, more than eight species of fish and a squid. When one of the sharks attacked a fish in the small tank, boys and girls alike shouted with excitement.
The animals were passed around, as students snapped pictures on their cellphones and asked questions. A hog choker, they were told, has two eyes on the top of its head because it lives at the river bottom. The pig fish, they learned, is named for the faint oink it makes when distressed.
Both Maurer and 12-year-old Oliver Bateman said the trip will help them when it's time to write an essay or take a test about estuaries.
"This is more hands-on and easier to remember," Bateman said.
Colella said she hopes the fun will extend even further.
"I'd like them to have a better appreciation of our environment and of its uniqueness," she said. "Hopefully they will carry that on to their families."