Designed to inspire

Last Friday, students gathered in Kachemak Bay Campus’ Bayview Hall as the skeleton of a Stejneger’s beaked whale they had carefully pieced together was raised to hang from the college ceiling. 

Among the participating students were the members of KBC’s Semester by the Bay program, a domestic exchange program intended to attract undergraduate biology students from around the country who are eager to get their feet wet and their hands dirty in the marine sciences. 

This semester’s group of 10 students have done just that, from excavating the buried whale carcass in order to articulate the skeleton, to observing foraging behavior in sea otter populations by analyzing scat samples. These hands-on experiences have given them unique exposure to careers available to them in the marine sciences, which, KBC’s long-time director, Carol Swartz, says, is exactly the point. 

“The thrust of it is to provide a semester here that is field based, hands-on, internship based, with small classes,” she said. 

The Semester by the Bay, or SBB, program was developed as part of a 20-year-old initiative by KBC to capitalize on Homer’s proximity to Kachemak Bay’s vibrant marine ecosystem by offering programs, degrees and courses in the marine sciences. SBB launched in the fall of 2011 with two students from the University of Alaska Anchorage and Western Washington University, and has grown with KBC’s marketing efforts to include students from universities as far away as California and North Carolina. 

“What we have to offer here is an approach to teaching marine science that is field based,” said Swartz. While many students may be studying marine biology on their home campus, they don’t have the opportunity to apply their studies the way they do at KBC. “They’re going to learn about citations, but they’re not going to learn by articulating a Stejneger’s whale like they are here,” she said.

The program is comprised of six core classes: Marine Mammal Biology, Ornithology, Ichthyology, Marine Biology and Whale Articulation Internship. Each course includes multiple hands-on learning activities and field trips. Debbie Tobin, Ph.D., SBB’s academic advisor and Marine Mammal Biology co-instructor with Marc Webber, has taught at KBC for eight years and helped develop the SBB program.

In the field portion of her course, Tobin takes students to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward to meet with veterinarians and staff about animal husbandry techniques, as well as to Turnagain Arm to observe beluga whales. The students also take two water taxi rides around Kachemak Bay to do behavioral studies of sea otters and harbor seals. On one trip this semester, a humpback whale breeched right next to their boat.

At schools in the rest of the country, these opportunities are rare, Tobin said. In particular, past SBB students have assisted in the necropsies of many large marine mammals, including the Stejneger’s beaked whale which this year’s group helped articulate with instructor Lee Post.

“There are very few places ever where I’ve been where you, as an undergraduate student, would be able to assist with a beluga whale necropsy. It’s an endangered species. You’d be way back in line behind post docs and faculty members. You’d be incredibly fortunate to have the opportunities that the students have numerous times throughout the semester,” she said. 

In addition to the core classes, the majority of students take electives offered at KBC and intern with a local marine organization for course credit. The internships are a big draw for students looking to gain experience in their field, and are often the most formative part of the semester.

“I feel in this one semester I’ve learned so much about opportunities that are available for what I want to do, more than I ever would have learned at UNCW,” said senior Ashley Bothwell, 23, from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.  

“One of the main things is introducing the students to the variety of career options there are in marine biology and marine mammal biology,” said Tobin. “The scientists here are so in love with what they do and the environment here, that their passion is contagious. Being able to facilitate interactions among students and community members and scientists is very rewarding.”

Swartz agreed, stating that the SBB program would not be possible without community support. 

“If we didn’t have people living in Homer for me to call and ask if you want to teach adjunct while you work a full time job, we couldn’t offer these opportunities. Having these state, nonprofit, and federal agencies that have this expertise and interest is crucial. It’s the people who are attracted to live in Homer who inspire it.” 

This semester students interned at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helping with sea otter rescue and response. The students studied foraging behavior in sea otter populations and analyzed plankton samples at the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve. The Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies welcomed their assistance with marine mammal skeletal articulation as well as community outreach. All internship partners hosted affiliated students in their bunkhouses for free or reduced rent, which in addition to KBC’s offer of in-state tuition to visiting students, helps make the SBB program affordable. 

Stephen Fogarsi, 21, a senior from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington attended the SBB program in the fall of 2013, and came back to Homer this past summer to work for Sasquatch Alaska Adventure Co. When he learned that SBB was offering different classes this fall, he decided to stay for a second semester. The accessibility of KBC professors and the field experiences were what drew Fogarsi back. 

“You’re not a number here,” he said. “I’ve had so many hands-on experiences with articulating the whale skeleton and participating in several dissections I never would have been able to get into back in Wilmington. There were days when a dead marine mammal would wash up and we would postpone class to deal with it.” 

As this year’s SBB students return to their respective corners of the country, Swartz and Tobin are already looking ahead to future semesters. The college’s goal for SBB is to “have it systemically rolled into the campus and this community, and to have a reputation for training and educating future marine biologists for next generations,” Swartz said. 

Her favorite part of the program is watching the “a-ha moment” when marine biology comes alive for the students. “They’re gaining a passion for the marine ecosystem and how important it is. This made a difference in their lives, and that difference is going to be played out in ways we’ll never know. The inspiration part is very neat,” she said.

Lindsay Olsen is a freelance writer who lives in Homer.