July 27, 2008

Two-Hour Discovery Tours Are Based at Metro Beach

By Tammy Stables Battaglia, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 27--Macomb County residents may not think of themselves as coastal residents in the traditional sense. But a series of boat tours leaving the Metro Beach Metropark docks in the next couple of weeks is designed to change that.

Michigan Sea Grant, a federally funded marine research and education program with a local office in Clinton Township, organizes the cruises.

"Here in Michigan, you've got more shoreline than any state other than Alaska," said Steve Stewart, Sea Grant's education outreach specialist, who's based at the Michigan State University Extension office in Clinton Township. "Half of the counties in Michigan are coastal counties. But people in Michigan generally don't think and act like coastal residents, like on the East Coast, West Coast or Gulf Coast. It's our attempt to make the general public aware of the wonderful resources that surround Michigan."

From July 30 to Aug. 11, Summer Discovery Cruises will take passengers out on 28 cruises on Lake St. Clair from Metro Beach in Harrison Township.

The two-hour boat tours, which cost $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 17, pair curious guests with a captain, three or four guides and sometimes a local historian.

Each summer, between 1,200 and 1,500 people board the 48-foot former fishing boat, the Clinton, operated by the Clinton River Cruise Company based in Mt. Clemens. The boat is certified by the U.S. Coast Guard to carry 43 passengers per trip.

A number of the Summer Discovery Cruises focus on the area's history, including cruises that visit Lake St. Clair lighthouses. Other cruises, like the school cruises, focus on science and nature. The Eagle's Eye Nature cruises focus on the International Wildlife Refuge along the Michigan shore of the Detroit River, offering a chance to spot eagles' nests and natural areas visible only by water. The ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) Adventure on the river and in Lake St. Clair uses a submersible robotic camera to explore under water, sending pictures to an onboard screen. The Lake St. Clair Fisheries boat trip pulls up next to a Michigan Department of Natural Resources boat to help with tagging and monitoring fish plucked from the lake.

Mary Jo Ferguson, 52, of Riverview, daughter of a long-time Great Lakes tug boat captain, will spend her time on the water leading experiments, history lessons and sightseeing with guests who board at Metro Beach. As a tour guide and interpreter, she's helping others garner the same respect for the Great Lakes' history, wildlife and biology her father instilled in her.

"They don't realize how much it's improved," Ferguson said about passengers' perception of the quality of area waterways compared to when she boated recreationally with her father years ago. "He taught me how to look out on the bow for things floating in the river that you don't see now -- tires, junk. We used to have to scrub the slime off the boat when we came in, and you don't see that now nearly as much."

The outreach program, based at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, is funded mainly by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). There are 30 state Sea Grant programs located in every coastal and Great Lakes state and Puerto Rico. The Sea Grant programs form a university-based network of more than 300 schools and local organizations, involving more than 3,000 scientists, engineers, educators, students and outreach experts.

A civil engineer for years, Ferguson is now studying to become a math and science teacher. As part of her training, she's a guide with the Summer Discovery Cruise program.

The tours evolved in 2002 from school tours Sea Grant had been doing for years, like a recent outing by a group of students and chaperones from Detroit. For a number of the kids, it was their first time out on the river.

"No yucking allowed!" guide and educator Kristen McKinney, 36, of Gibraltar said to her group. "No 'yuck' or 'eewws' allowed. You're a scientist today. Everything's going to be 'Sweet!' 'Fantastic!' 'Awesome!' "

And it was, everything from dredging muck and seaweed from the bottom about 3 feet down, to using a microscope to check out single-cell protozoa scooped from the lake.

The passengers learned the 5,000 types of plankton fit into two groups: the animal kind, or zooplankton, and the seaweed kind, or phytoplankton. McKinney told them, too, that phytoplankton, like the glob they grabbed from the river bottom, provides most of the atmosphere's oxygen, not trees, as most people think.

The hands-on exploration made a big impact about water quality for Divina Moreno, 9, on the cruise with her aunt, Eva Caraballo, 24, both of Detroit. They were on the boat with Divina's fourth-grade class at Detroit's Bennett Elementary.

"At first, I didn't think it was that important," she said. "And now, it's very important because of the animals, plants and plankton. I learned things I never even knew about."

For more information or to register for the Metro Beach Metropark cruises, visit www.miseagrant.umich.edu/discovery or call the park at 586-463-4332.


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