Up Close with The Bay

Under the guidance of Santa Monica Pier Aquarium educator Nick Fash, Village School students get a special opportunity to touch the juvenile horn shark, whose skin is made of tiny teeth. From left to right are kindergartners Lizzie Howard, Emily Maron, Travis Rase and Ryan Starling.
Under the guidance of Santa Monica Pier Aquarium educator Nick Fash, Village School students get a special opportunity to touch the juvenile horn shark, whose skin is made of tiny teeth. From left to right are kindergartners Lizzie Howard, Emily Maron, Travis Rase and Ryan Starling.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

Last week, Village School kindergartners became scientists for the day when they visited the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Educators encouraged the youngsters to use their senses to learn about the ocean life in neighboring Santa Monica Bay. Formerly the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, the aquarium was taken over by the nonprofit organization Heal the Bay last year, after budget cuts meant UCLA could no longer run it. Heal the Bay reopened the aquarium in June and it is now booked through the summer with elementary education programs. The aquarium complements Heal the Bay’s mission of ocean conservation and stewardship. Fortified with a snack after the short bus ride to the aquarium, located just underneath the carousel at the pier, the 45 kindergartners excitedly descend on the aquarium. Education manager Vicki Wawerchak and educator Nick Fash are ready for them. “When we go inside we’re going to be scientists,” Wawerchak tells the students. Once inside, the “treasure hunt for animals” begins, and they’re told to look for the soft and squishy orange sea cucumber or the red spiny lobster. Students are taught to take out their scientific “touching tool”-two of their fingers-to gently feel the “jello-like” sea cucumber and the “sticky” jellyfish, among others in the waist-high touch tank. The 2,000-sq.-ft. aquarium is filled with sea life, all of which is found in Santa Monica Bay. The viewing tanks have different themes-one is filled with crustaceans, the pier tank reflects the sea life right under the pier, and a rocky reef tank contains eels. The large touch tank contains invertebrates such as sea urchins, sea stars and snails. “The kids love it,” says teacher Stephanie Don Vito of the aquarium. “They can see the animals and touch them. It’s not too big and the presenters are great.” Up to 60 students can visit at a time, divided into two groups. Wawerchak leads them in a program where they learn about sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. Lucky young volunteers get to hold the animals, as Wawerchak explains through words and funny physical demonstrations how sea stars dine on mussels. “They barf their stomach up outside their body and into the mussel, make a soup [with their digestive juices and enzymes] and suck it in.” “Gross!” yell the kindergartners. “Scientists don’t say ‘gross,’ they say ‘Wow, cool!'” explains Wawerchak, a native Palisadian who has been a marine biology educator for 10 years, and who gains her young audience’s rapt attention. Soon she has the children demonstrating the sea star digestion along with her. Later, small groups of children gather around a sea star in a plastic container. When the sea stars are placed on their backs as an experiment, they start to turn over. “Flip over sea star,” the kids chant. “Ours is flipping,” another group says excitedly. And with arms raised high in the air, a third group shouts: “It flipped!” The children touch the sea stars’ tube feet, and back at the touch tanks, see one with its stomach partially out. For the second half of the trip, the groups switch, and Nick Fash leads them out onto the beach. Kids continue their scientific exploration right next to the pier, looking for bird footprints, feathers and guano (“What scientists call sea bird poop,” Fash says). Then, given plastic colanders to use as sieves, the kids pair up and see what they can find in the sand-shells, rocks and tiny sand crabs. “They learn there’s more to the beach than just laying a towel down and playing in the waves,” Wawerchak says. “There are animals and a food chain.” Palisadian Vicki Warren is one of several Heal the Bay volunteers assisting this morning. The small staff relies on many volunteers-to help with education programs, greet the public and answer questions, or assist senior aquarist Jose Bacllao in feeding and taking care of the animals and tanks. The volunteers and educators say it’s particularly rewarding to work with students who have never been to an aquarium or put their toes in the sand. “It’s fun to get them to not be afraid,” Warren says. The aquarium, 1600 Ocean Front Walk, is open to the public from 2 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 12:30 to 5 p.m. on weekends. Heal the Bay runs the aquarium with the help of a grant and assistance from the City of Santa Monica, but they are looking for donations to help in continuing the aquarium’s work. The entry fee is $1 per person, with a suggested donation of $5. Children 12 and under are free. The aquarium is also available weekend mornings for birthday parties. Sundays are shark days, with a talk and feeding at 3:30 and shark movies, crafts, discussions and stories the rest of the day. A “microbiologist” program for 3- to 5-year-olds will take place on Monday afternoons in March. For more information or to make donations, call 393-6149.