AP Biology and AP Environmental Science journey to Catalina Island

by Jordan Evans


With sleeping bags, hiking boots, and coffees in hand, the juniors and seniors of Steve Hammack’s AP Biology and Amelia DeLaPaz’s AP Environmental Science classes strode into the San Francisco and San Jose airports on Fri., Nov. 3, ready to embark on the annual field trip to Santa Catalina Island.

After their separate flights, the two classes converged at LAX and boarded buses to Long Beach. From there, they departed on a two-hour boat ride that delivered them directly to Toyon Bay, home of the Catalina Island Marine Institute, or CIMI. As students stepped onto the dock, almost a dozen CIMI instructors clad in colorful and silly gear welcomed them to the island.

Students promptly formed the study groups they would be with for the weekend. Splitting off in their own directions, some groups immediately slipped into wetsuits to snorkel in the clear water while others hung back on dry land to try out a few labs.

In the shark and invertebrate labs, students had the opportunity to get some hands-on experience with the local aquatic fauna and pet various species of oceanic animals. CIMI’s marine mammal building, boasting an entire whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, hosted another lab in which students completed a scavenger hunt to discover the unique living habits of marine mammals. Later, the kelp lab gave students the opportunity to demonstrate their creative genius, where they made art projects with kelp from just down the pier. Equipped with microscopes and slides smeared with seawater, students identified numerous types of miniscule organisms as part of the plankton lab. Students also spent time in a room filled with aquariums containing assorted oceanic habitats to learn about various local fish species.

That night, the groups who had passed the afternoon doing labs returned indoors for a squid dissection. Using only their hands as tools, students gradually picked apart the body of a squid, locating features like its optic lens and beak. Those ready to immerse themselves fully in the spirit of CIMI joined the Bat Ray Club for the low price of sticking a piece of the squid, which resembled a bat ray, to their hands, foreheads, eyelids, or mouths.

On the other side of camp, a few groups of students spent the day snorkeling around Toyon Bay. In the daylight, groups headed out into the water to explore the terrain and get their bearings in flippers and wetsuits. Every team’s experience differed from others’, contributing to the unpredictable, exciting nature of the trip. While a few students observed a harbor seal at close range, others got an intimate experience with octopus ink, and some touched a leopard shark in its natural habitat. Junior Andrew Chrissan is one of many students who noted that a highlight of the trip was “snorkeling and hanging with friends.”

Under the light of the full moon, the sea explorers dove into the water once again for a night snorkel. Flashlights in hand, they sought out nocturnal sea life in the chilly water. A favorite feature of the trip came when each group turned off its lights and witnessed phytoplankton emitting motion-activated bioluminescence, seemingly turning the calm water into a starry sky.

Saturday morning came early, rousing the weary explorers for the full day ahead. The groups swapped schedules so they could get a taste of what they had missed the day before. A few teams, however, embarked on a new adventure and hiked one the numerous trails CIMI has carved into the island. Senior Jillian Reagan, after deep consideration, affirmed that her “favorite part was doing the hike with [her] wonderful guide and learning all about the history of the island.” Students, in between sniffing sage plants lining the path and trying to avoid cacti, took advantage of the beautiful views to snap photos of the picturesque island and indigo ocean.

Students also had ample free time to spread out all over the property and take advantage of all CIMI had to offer. Popular destinations during free time included the GaGa ball pit, human foosball arena, basketball court, beach, and pier, which supplied one rare bar of cell service.

Following the conclusion of educational activities for the day, all students gathered on the beach for the traditional campfire during what junior Nick Dean called “an extremely serene and beautiful night.” With the sound of group singalongs and the aroma of toasting marshmallows in the air, a palpable familial bond formed among the crowd of students. Juniors mingled with seniors, AP Bio with APES, creating a melting pot of inclusivity that peacefully concluded the night.

A majority of the students woke up in the cover of darkness on Sunday morning to take part in the sunrise hike. Eyes still half-shut, they climbed a mountain trail to “The Shrine,” a plateau decorated with a tall stone structure and a real bison skeleton. The mob packed in close to turn its gaze eastward and watch pink and orange clouds announce the start of the day.

Thirsty and sunburnt from their last-minute adventures, the teams reconvened and said their goodbyes to the CIMI staff. The students and chaperones boarded the boat headed back to the mainland, and as they pulled away, the CIMI instructors bid their students farewell by excitedly diving off the dock into the ocean below.

Mr. Hammack has been bringing students to the island for 37 years, and he claims that with each visit, he discovers something new. In addition to learning more about the island and its habitats, he revels in providing students with the chance to realize their appreciation for the environment. “The motivation to save our planet begins with loving our planet,” Mr. Hammack says. “This field trip is our attempt to help our students fall in love with the ocean and the amazing ecosystems that cover this Earth so they can help preserve it for future generations.”

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