For many years, the Discovery Hall Programs Marine Science High School Course has visited the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans, Louisiana. The goals of the trip are many: see the Mississippi Gulf Coast and learn about its history, visit the largest watershed in the United States, the Mississippi River, tour the aquarium, explore marine-related careers, and take in a little New Orleans culture.
This summer, the group was led by Audubon Senior Aviculturist Tom Dyer. As they toured through various ‘back of house’ areas including food preparation and above the Gulf and Mayan Reef tanks, Dyer shared details about the inner-workings and the demands of maintaining such a large facility.
Dyer works closely with the penguins. He shared with students a story about how one of their aging African Penguins, Ernie, receiving acupuncture treatments for arthritis.
“Many in our group had not visited a large aquarium like Audubon and were amazed to see what all goes on behind the scenes to care for the animals and the exhibits,” shared Greg Graeber, DHP Educator.
The partnership with Audubon is reciprocal. The Audubon Nature Institute has a robust volunteer program that includes several tracts directed specifically at youth. Staff from the zoo and aquarium train students in middle and high school on topics ranging from conservation and the environment to public speaking and leadership. One component to the education these young volunteers receive is a visit to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab.
“At Audubon, we love visiting the Dauphin Island Sea Lab with our youth volunteers because of the proximity to two diverse marine ecosystems as well as the immersive educational programs,” Audubon Nature Institute’s Youth Development Coordinator Sonia Ahrabi-Nejad said.
The students spend time with one of the Discovery Hall educators, both in the classroom and exploring the beach, salt marsh or other barrier island habitat. Their visit also includes a guided tour of the Estuarium with one of the aquarists.
On the most recent visit, Ahrabi-Nejad brought a group of 14 AquaKids. DHP educator JoAnn Moody and intern Alex Lau led the group on a memorable trip of seining and dip-netting in the salt marsh.
“Being able to see some of the same animals from our aquarium in the salt marsh connects the message of our aquarium animals as ambassadors for their species in the wild,” Ahrabi-Nejad said.
After completing four weeks of training, these volunteers will commit to one year of service to the aquarium.
Another Audubon youth volunteer program, formerly ECCO Leadership and now Eco Krewe, has also traveled to DISL for the past few years in March for a weekend full of Discovery Hall programs. This year, the trip was opened up to all active youth volunteers across all Audubonfacilities. Ahrabi-Nejad said placement on the trip was highly competitive, because of the unique hands-on programs being offered: ROV-making and the salt marsh experience.
DISL and Discovery Hall are grateful for this ongoing, beneficial partnership for both groups, and look forward to it continuing for years to come.