Phytoplankton Soup!

It’s the last week before the school year starts and we squeezed in one last summer field trip to Friday Harbor, where some of the scientists I work with at Institute for Systems Biology have been conducting research related to ocean acidification. The Friday Harbor Labs belong to the University of Washington, but other researchers can rent the facilities, too.

Getting to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island required a significant amount of patience from the kids: 2 hours to Anacortes, a short wait for the ferry, 1 hour on the ferry.

Ferry to Friday Harbor
Ferry to Friday Harbor

But once we arrived, there was plenty to see at the labs.

UW's Friday Harbor Labs
UW’s Friday Harbor Labs

The kids got to peer into the microscope to see various phytoplankton, which are responsible for photosynthesis and play a key role in the food web in seawater and freshwater. There are hundreds of types of phytoplankton, but the the sample the kids got to see primarily contained Thalassiosira, Coscinodiscus, Chaetoceros, and Ditylum, as well as zooplankton and larvae (e.g. sea urchin, jelly fish). These organisms live in the waters just off the pier at the Friday Harbor Labs.




There is a small pool in the lobby of the main lab building, where visitors can see some of the creatures that live in the waters.



In the afternoon, the researchers (Monica Orellana, Allison Lee and Jake Valenzuela) took a row boat into the bay to collect water samples. Allison is using a mesh phytoplankton net that concentrates the organisms in a cup-like container.



Phytoplankton net

The reason the scientists were collecting samples was to be able to study how these organisms respond to different pH levels.

Ocean Acidification Experiments

It wasn’t all fun for the kids. Because I did have to do a little work, there were a few moments of down time when the kids got bored.


I’m fortunate that I was able to bring the kids along on this trip. I don’t know what their minds retained from that day, but they can say that they went to the labs and looked into a microscope. Sometimes, that’s all that it takes to inspire a kid.


Going to the Source: Strawberry Picking in the Skagit

The middle of July is late for prime strawberry picking, but we went to Sakuma Bros. Farms & Market in the Skagit Valley (about 1 hour north of Seattle) to see what we could score. We went looking for Shuksan strawberries, which is an heirloom variety that has the most perfumed flavor. Alas, it was past the season. But there were other varieties to be had.


The kids don’t have much of sense of what manual labor means or how hard farming is. I made it a point to explain that we go strawberry picking for fun, but there are many people for whom strawberry picking is a back-breaking, low-paying livelihood.


This is the second year we’ve gone to Sakuma. The kids get to eat strawberries from the plants and taste real berry flavor.


It didn’t take long before the kids got tired of picking strawberries, though. In the end, we got 13 pounds of strawberries, which we’ve frozen to use in smoothies and baked goods.

Going to the Source: Crabbing on Shilshole Bay

Our friend Schelleen Rathkopf shows Meilee how to throw a crab pot into the bay.

It’s important for kids to know how food gets to the table, so they don’t think that everything simply comes from the grocery store neatly packed in plastic. We regularly visit the farmers markets and we have herbs and lettuces growing in our yard so they get a sense of connection to farmers and produce. Some day, I’ll teach them about meat butchery – since we choose to eat meat, I believe we should understand the process and ramifications of doing so. But we need to work our way up to that. For now, seeing how a crab is caught has less potential to overwhelm.

Meilee and Shen mug for the camera with their friend Grace.
Meilee and Shen mug for the camera with their friend Grace.

Of course, learning doesn’t preclude fun. Our friend Schelleen Rathkopf, a high school classmate of my husband, let us tag along with her and her kids, Grace and Arden, to set a couple of crab pots. It was a chilly evening and the water was choppy, so we got the full Seattle effect. We boarded their motor boat and Schelleen zoomed off to her family’s favorite crabbing spot.

Arden watches as his father, Charley, sails in a regatta. (Charley is the one on the left in the background.)
Arden watches as his father, Charley, sails in a regatta. (Charley is the one on the left in the background.)

After dropping the crab pots, we went to watch Schelleen’s husband, Charley, compete in a regatta. It was great for our kids to be around Grace and Arden, who have grown up around sailing and who showed such confidence and facility moving around on the boat. I want my kids to learn to be comfortable on and in the water since we do live in the Puget Sound area.

We did catch some Dungeness, but they were all too small to keep. You can keep only the males and they have to have a width of at least 6.25 inches.

You can keep only the male crab that are at least 6.25 inches across the widest part of the carapace or shell. Schelleen shows the underside of a female crab, which has a wide abdomen. Males have a narrow abdomen.

In the end, we didn’t have any keepers. But that’s ok. The more important takeaway from the experience was to see the crabbing process, learn a little bit about boating and, of course, have some fun.

We got a little windblown, speeding across the bay.