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The Deep Blue Sea

Ocean Nerds, Check Out These Online Experiences

Aquariums are closed, but they're offering plenty of virtual options to interact with sea creatures

A screenshot from an Aquarium of the Pacific webcam of a penguin swimming (Photo: Courtesy Robin Riggs)
A screenshot from an Aquarium of the Pacific webcam of a penguin swimming

Two years ago, Jerry Schubel, president and CEO of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, told me, “If you want your kids to care about the ocean, get them to care about the things that live in the ocean.” He invited my four children (ages twelve, nine, four, and one at the time) to the aquarium for a day of petting sharks, feeding sea otters and manta rays, enjoying the company of a precocious two-year-old Magellanic penguin, and shadowing staff as they identified and logged aquatic life sightings aboard Harbor Breeze Cruises

On that cruise, we fell in love with a family of five fin whales swimming in the ocean. We could hear each whale breathe, and some of us got sprayed in the face by water from their blowholes. Today we still think about their well-being and what we can do to prevent threats to the second-largest species of whales. 

Now, with shelter-in-place orders in effect, I wondered how aquariums and ocean-conservation programs would continue sharing these kinds of experiences remotely. Fortunately, the Aquarium of the Pacific and a number of other organizations throughout the country are offering families a variety of engaging activities online. 


Aquariums

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s Online Academy includes programs with its educators, live webcamsYouTube videos, a guest-speaker series, and a daily show. “The interaction between us and the audience is key,” says David Bader, its director of education. “We are trying to use face-to-face teaching theories in a distance-learning platform. We are building connections and community among our viewers. We want people of all ages who are at home to engage with our exhibits and animals and learn about the ocean.”

The aquarium’s free Pacific Visions EcoAlliance app challenges both adults and kids to sustainably consume food, water, and energy. Lola the cockatoo’s field trip around the aquarium is an especially popular post.

A screenshot of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Facebook-page video of Lola, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, going on a field trip of the aquarium
A screenshot of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s Facebook-page video of Lola, the sulphur-crested cockatoo, going on a field trip of the aquarium (Photo: Courtesy Aquarium of the Pacific)

Birch Aquarium is the public-outreach center for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California at San Diego, one of the largest research programs for ocean and earth science. Tune in to its Facebook events and watch behind-the-scenes videos of things like hatching weedy sea dragons or a giant kelp-forest tank that is pumped with sea water, which facilitates the growth of algae. 

Each week the Georgia Aquarium premieres a new video in its Deep Sea Learning YouTube series. Check out its new at-home learning program, which offers field guides and lesson plans for kindergarten through 12th grade. Its most popular posts feature puppies from the Atlanta Humane Society visiting the aquarium while it’s closed to the public.

In Hawaii, Waikiki Aquarium has set up new virtual experiences, like how to draw marine animals with Hawaiian nature artist Patrick Ching and webcams of the Hawaiian monk seal named Hoailona, the south shore of Waikiki, and the aquarium’s galleries.

“Engaging and inspiring the public about the wonders of our blue planet is central to our mission,” says Vikki N. Spruill, president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. To continue those efforts during the pandemic, her aquarium is hosting a new series of virtual visits, daily live educational presentations on Facebook at 11 A.M. EST, interviews with aquarists, and at-home projects. The most popular video since its closure has been the African penguin feeding.

Some unique opportunities have been made possible because aquariums are closed. From March 26 to April 14, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service granted Monterey Bay Aquarium in California a special exception to livestream what guests would normally not be allowed to see: resident sea otters taking care of stranded pups. Visit its Learning at Home page to find free self-paced online courses, such as Tidepool Scientist for pre-K to second grade and Explore Like a Scientist for grades three through six. “Our education team helps students to think like a scientist while they learn about ocean animals and habitats and what they can contribute to conservation,” says Rita Bell, its vice president of education. 

A screenshot from an Aquarium of the Pacific webcam of a penguin swimming
A screenshot from an Aquarium of the Pacific webcam of a penguin swimming (Photo: Courtesy Robin Riggs)


Nonprofits and Government Agencies

The Pacific Marine Mammal Center, located in Laguna Beach, California, offers long-distance educational presentations that are normally only available to schools but are now open to everyone. Using the Seal Spotter app, participants can take photos of tagged seals or sea lions in the wild so the center can see where the animals they once took care of are and how they’re faring. 

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages 14 national marine sanctuaries as well as the Papahanaumokuakea and Rose Atoll Marine National Monuments, located in the North and South Pacific Oceans, respectively. Start with Sanctuaries at Home for access to its interactive live webinar series, which includes videos like “Bringing the Ocean to You,” early releases of its virtual-reality dives, games, a curriculum, and expeditions.

The Ocean Film Festival, originally scheduled to run in March in San Francisco, has released its films for free online. Movies like Alice in Borneo’s Wonderland, about a 16-year-old learning to scuba-dive, were added for middle school and high school students who were set to attend the festival. “Some of these kids have never been to the ocean. Our goal is to bring the ocean to our audiences, since they can’t come to us,” says executive director Ann Blanco. “Our desire is to keep the conversation going, so we can learn about the beauty of our ocean, the amazing animals that live in the ocean, and how we recreate with the ocean for our pleasure. The ocean brings us calm and reduces our stress, so we’re trying to help during this critical time with the power of film.”


Although virtual experiences provide similar benefits to reality, we had such a fantastic once-in-a-lifetime experience with the whales that I wasn’t sure how virtual programs could compare. But after a week of introducing these resources to my family, I noticed that my older kids would sometimes skip Fortnite meetups just to attend underwater livestreams. After working my way through the Aquarium of the Pacific’s lecture series Ocean to Table: Stories of Food, Farming, and Conservation, I now serve my family only seafood from sustainable and responsible wild and farmed sources, and I make smoothies with seaweed. And while watching the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s sea otter cam and listening to its social-media team answer questions about stranded pups one day, my six-year-old giggled at the sight of Ivy, a resident sea otter, pouncing on the back of a pup, wrapping her arms around the pup’s waist, and wrangling her down to a sleeping position. “Mom, that’s what you do with us,” my daughter said. My three-year-old asked me to scratch her belly the way Ivy was calming down her pup. Then she pointed at the pup and said, “She looks just like me.” 

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Lead Photo: Courtesy Robin Riggs
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