Issue: October 2009
Chesapeakeology 101

Wherein the author takes us on a field trip full of sciencey stuff and a pinch of magical thinking.

by T.F. Sayles 
photography by Vince Lupo

All right, class, get out your workbooks and turn to page 74, "Temporal, Seasonal, Spatial and Vertical Distributions of Zooplankton Communities." . . . 

Oh, hell, forget that. Put away the books. I'll tell you what, instead of me just blathering on about oyster parasites and Asian crabs and nutrient overload and dissolved oxygen and stock assessments and exploitation thresholds and other potentially mind-numbing sciencey stuff . . . let's go on a field trip! Let's go to a couple of places where the sciencey stuff actually happens. I've got it all planned out: First we'll go to Solomons, Md., and visit the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (CBL), then we'll double back north and stop in at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) in Edgewater, Md., 
on the Rhode River just south of Annapolis. 

If only it had been that simple. That had indeed been the overall design of my proposed sciencey stuff boat trip from the beginning. On the drawing board it was a very straightforward two-stop, back-and-forth kind of thing. But in reality, as is so often the case when you mix boats, weather and limited windows of time, it became far more complicated. To be specific, requiring two separate cruises, one overnight at a marina, an early-morning car drop-off in Edgewater, a sunset canoe paddle, and a land-yacht cruise from Baltimore to Solomons and back.

But for our purposes here, let's pretend it wasn't nearly so complicated. Let's agree that by dint of the phrase "then, as if by magic," I can smooth over the complicated bits, go from one important bit to the next without getting bogged down in the logistical details. Agreed? Good.

So it was that on a hot and sticky Tuesday afternoon in mid-August, I found myself aboard Venture (one of three Albin 28s available to CBM editors, now that we're members of the Chesapeake Boating Club), motoring out of Back Creek into the Severn River. Soon I was able to throttle up and put her semi-planing hull on semi-plane, grateful for the breeze. Some four hours later I cleared Calvert Cliffs, rounded Cove Point, then Drum Point, then headed to Harbor Island Marina, which I'd chosen for its proximity to CBL.

The next morning I crossed the marina parking lot to Charles Street and walked a few hundred feet east to the CBL visitor center, where an infectiously cheerful docent named Jackie Donaldson showed me around and filled me in on the surprisingly long history of the facility—surprising to me, at least. All of the signage and literature makes it clear that the CBL is now part of the University of Maryland Center for Enviromental Science (UMCES)—the other parts being the Horn Point Laboratory in Cambridge, the Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg, and the Maryland Sea Grant College, headquartered in College Park. But I for one was surprised to learn that the CBL itself opened for business way back in 1925, with no affiliation to the university, except that the man behind it was a professor there.

That would be zoologist Reginald V. Truitt, an Eastern Shore native and a research visionary who not only saw the need for a permanent facility on the Bay, but also made it happen. It was an informal affair at first, operating out of a converted oyster shack on land donated by the local Episcopal church. Then, in 1931, Truitt's operation moved into its first building, this one funded by the state in the interest of science, and also built on donated land, this time from the town of Solomons. That first building still stands; it is now called Beaven Hall and it is home to CBL's administrative offices and library. It also has one of the best front-door views on the 16-building campus, which occupies most of the pennant-shaped hook of land at the southeastern end of Solomons. From the sturdy, oversized, old-school front door of Beaven Hall, you look straight out the long CBL pier and into the wide Patuxent River. In the distance, off to the left a bit, is Drum Point, where a screwpile lighthouse of that same name once stood guard over the river's narrow inner mouth.

CBL, the oldest state-supported lab on the East Coast, has enjoyed Maryland's support from the very beginning, first in the form of funding for what is now Beaven Hall, and then much more officially in 1941, when it became part of the state's Department of Research and Education. In 1960 it became part of the Maryland Natural Resources Institute and then, in 1973, it finally landed in the University of Maryland system, as part of what is now the University's Center for Environmental Sciences. As that affiliation might suggest, the laboratory is both a research and an educational facility, with a faculty of about 30, roughly the same number of graduate students, and a staff of nearly 50—clearly a major employer in what is otherwise a small village of watermen, charterboat captains, and, in the warm months, visiting boaters and tourists. The scientific disciplines, and therefore the research topics, run the gamut from basic marine biology and fisheries science to biogeochemistry, toxicology, emerging contaminants and biomass size spectra. . . .

I don't know about you, but my head is starting to hurt. But how 'bout that view, huh? Another building with a great front-door view is the visitor center. You remember the visitor center—where we started this morning? It's also called Solomons House, because it was once the home of Isaac Solomon, the 19th-century oyster merchant from whom this putative island gets its name. Like Beaven Hall, Solomons House looks out the mouth of the river; unlike Beaven Hall, it has done so since about 1780.

Nowadays, however, early in its third century, Solomons House serves as the public face of CBL. Here, in blessed air-conditioned comfort, you can watch a short video on the history and scope of the facility and then peruse several rooms of exhibits that offer a very accessible layman's-eye-view of the scientific quests in progress here. The exhibit that fascinated me most was one that I actually could have seen anywhere—that is, anywhere I could find a computer and an internet connection. At one end of a narrow room on the south side of the house, alongside an exhibit of the Bay's ambitious observation-buoy system (the Chesapeake Bay Observing System, or CBOS), was a pair of computer monitors, each with live video feeds—one from the lab's nearby osprey-nest camera and one from a "scuba cam." I've seen lots of osprey cams, and they can be very entertaining, especially when there are young chicks in the nest. But what really caught my eye here was the scuba cam—live video from an underwater camera at the end of the nearby CBL pier. With what looked like perch and croakers and young rockfish casually swimming across the screen every few seconds, I could scarcely take my eyes off it. (And I haven't since, in a manner of speaking; it's now bookmarked on my browser, and I visit my fish friends every day. Both the scuba cam and the osprey cam are online at

In a perfect world, I would have stayed at Solomons House watching the fish cam until closing time (4 p.m.), then strolled into town for a nice dinner, then spent another night on the boat, then returned the next day at 2 p.m. for the Wednesday installment of the CBL's twice-weekly public laboratory tour (the other is Friday). But the imperfect world I actually inhabit made doubly sure that no such convenient thing would happen. Not only did I need to get the boat back to Annapolis by noon Wednesday, but also the tours for that week had been cancelled for lack of an available docent. So perhaps you could come back next Wednesday, they kindly suggested. A lovely idea, said I.

Then, as if by magic, it was Friday afternoon (see how well that works?), and I was again motoring out of Back Creek aboard Venture. This time the destination was the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) on the Rhode River, just below Annapolis. SERC isn't quite as long of tooth as CBL, but it's certainly older than I thought it was—dating back to 1964, when dairyman Robert Lee Forrest died and left his defunct 365-acre Java Dairy Farm, plus $2 million, to the Smithsonian Institution. The property's widely varied habitat (upland, wetland and estuary) made it a perfect site for ecological research. As with CBL, this too was a modest affair in the early years—not in a converted oyster shack, but rather a converted dairy barn. It has since grown tremendously, though, in the breadth and importance of its mission, as well as in sheer acreage. With last year's purchase of the adjacent Contee Farm property, SERC now has 2,650 acres on the Rhode River, which it considers a perfect "scale model" of the larger Chesapeake watershed. It also has 16 senior scientists, each with his or her own lab and field of study—from phytoplankton ecology and nutrient studies to trace-element biogeochemistry—plus what it calls an "interdisciplinary team" of 180 researchers, technicians and students.

For the SERC trip I was accompanied by CBM managing editor Ann Levelle and CBM senior editor Jody Schroath, my cohorts in editorial crime, and in the magazine's membership in the Chesapeake Bay Boating Club. The plan: Go to the West River and have lunch at Pirates Cove (because we could; try the grouper), and then head around the corner to the Rhode River and drop me off at SERC, where I'd signed on for one of their Friday sunset canoe paddles along Muddy Creek. Then Ann and Jody could run the boat back to Annapolis and I, having dropped off my car at SERC that morning, could head home after the evening paddle. It was all very complicated. There were flip charts involved.

Sure, I could have simply driven to SERC, it being only half an hour from the office, but I'd gone to CBL by boat and now I wanted to go to SERC by boat. Indeed, the place has its own sizable dock, and, while recreational boats are not permitted to tie up there, Karen McDonald, SERC's cheerful, can-do public outreach coordinator, assured me that I could anchor in the Rhode River and dinghy ashore. Or, yes, she said with a faint note of puzzlement, you could . . . uh, leave your car off here in the morning and then have your friends drop you off at the dock in the afternoon. . . . Sure, that's fine too.

I like outreach coordinators. They're very accommodating. And, as it turns out, they're very good at arranging weather for sunset canoe paddles. It being mid-August, the 16 of us who showed up to paddle that evening had no right to expect a cool, clear, bug-free evening—but that, to everyone's delight, is exactly what we got. I highly recommend doing it this way; if you decide to try it, be sure to call ahead and put in your order: 75 degrees, no humidity, no bugs, glowing golden sunset, well behaved children, etc. The only improvement I can think of would be to have it catered, maybe some finger sandwiches and a selection of wines. But I suppose one can't have everything.

The first order of business, after checking everyone in at the Reed Education Center—which stands by itself near the main dock and serves as SERC's visitor center—was to load us into vans and shuttle us a mile or so west to the canoe launch on Muddy Creek. There, after a sober but not entirely humorless briefing on the life vests we were now wearing and the paddles we were now holding, McDonald loaded us two and three at a time into the waiting canoes.

Then off we went down the creek, which flows into the Rhode River about half a mile upstream of the main dock, stopping every so often to raft up for a few minutes and find out from McDonald what we happened to be looking at—an old water-sampling station, out of commission for decades, that used a small-scale elevated railway to keep researchers out of the mud; a fish weir that looks like a ruin but is in fact still used (once a week since 1983!) to catch and count passing critters; a field of white pipes in the distant marshthat is the world's longest running CO2 measuring site (studying the compound's effect on marsh grass and biomass growth); and an osprey nest occupying a former water sampling station in the middle of the creek. The evening's wildlife entertainment was provided by a pair of aerobatic Forster's terns, one flying evasively and carrying a small fish in its beak, the other chasing it tirelessly and screeching with such indignance that one could only conclude there had been an injustice of some sort.

With daylight fading quickly—not to mention arm strength for those unaccustomed to paddling—we came about and headed back upstream. Before long we were dragging our vessels ashore in near darkness and stashing our paddles and life vests in the absolute darkness of the canoe shed. All the way back to the Reed Center, we marveled collectively at the perfect weather and congratulated one another for choosing that particular evening for our outing. Not wanting to spoil the moment, I decided not to bring up the idea of a caterer and finger sandwiches.

And once again, as if by magic, I found myself back at the Chesapeake Bay Biological Lab for the following week's Wednesday afternoon lab tour. There were five other people on the tour that day—a gentleman from nearby California, Md., and two visiting liveaboard couples, both summering in the Bay for the first time. Leading us was volunteer docent Kay Simkins. "I'm a florist, not a scientist," she told us as we left the visitor center. "So I may not be able to answer all of your questions . . . but I can find the answers."

Our first destination was immediately next door to Solomons House—the large fleet operations building and docks at the very tip of the island. There we got a close look at the pride and joy of UMCES—the new 81-foot, aluminum-hulled, jet-drive-propelled research vessel Rachel Carson, christened in late 2008 and named in honor of the Johns Hopkins trained biologist and nature writer who is considered the founder of the modern environmental movement [see Horton at Large, page 80].

Then we headed up the hill, past the visitor center again, and into the campus of sturdy two- and three-story brick buildings that are the heart of CBL. Our first stop was the contaminants lab, one of dozens in the huge Bernie Fowler Laboratory. There we met Dr. Andrew Heyes, a chemist and toxicologist, who gave us a nutshell of the work here—mostly the measurement and tracking of organic contaminants in the environment, particularly those that accumulate in the food web. "Now we're [mostly] interested in pesticides and herbicides and things coming down into the Bay, and their impact," said Heyes. "And then what they call personal care products, things that are on our clothes, like [antibacterial] silver nanoparticles, which end up getting washed off in the washing machine, down through the sewage treatment plant and out [into] the world."

We'd hear a lot more about nanoparticles later, but first we moved down the hall to the organic biogeochemistry lab, where we met Karen Taylor, an impossibly young organic chemist who told us about her recent three-week cruise in the Arctic Ocean, as part of a team that was collecting, among other things, sediment samples from the sea floor.

Next we visited the CBL's newest building—the fisheries research complex, built in 2007 and equipped with a sophisticated water delivery system that allows scientists to fill their wet-lab tankswith whatever they need. Cold water, warm water, sea water, fresh water, filtered water, chilled Perrier, you name it. Just kidding on that last one, but not on the rest; indeed, the pipes carrying this great variety of water are clearly visible overhead, and clearly marked as to what they deliver or take away. Here we met biologist Steve Fenske, part of the team that is trying to determine what kind of oyster shells—fresh "parent shells" versus older or even fossilized shells—work best for rebuilt reefs in the more acidic and erosive water of today's Bay. It's too soon to say for sure, he said, but it's beginning to look as if the fresh parent shells are best—not because they last longer (they don't), but because they act almost like zinc anodes on submerged metal; they divert the erosion process to themselves and away from the live oysters.

A few wet labs down we met Dr. Carys Mitchelmore, presiding over an array of glass beakers full of tadpoles. Here, she tells us, they have since May of this year been trying to determine the toxicity of nanoparticles—a quickly emerging concern, since these particles (scientific definition: a particle under 100 nanometers; lay definition: a particle that's really, really, itty-bitty tiny) are now all the rage in everyday chemical treatments. Silver nanoparticles, used as anti-odor and antibacterial treatments in everything from bandages and socks to washing machines, are of particular concern, she says—though on this particular day it's copper particles that the tadpoles should be worried about.

"Right now it looks like [copper] is going to be really toxic to them," Mitchelmore says, adding that the project is still largely unfunded. "So we're hoping to expand [the experiment] for silver, titanium, gold . . . there's a whole slew of them. Of course you have to weigh the benefits, because at the end of the day nanotechnology is going to be great for medicine and technology, and it's also going to be good for the environment. They're making nanosensors right now, so that you can detect pollutants. But still, you do need to weigh up the environmental harm as well."

As we headed back to the visitor center, with Kay Simkins summing things up and offering to answer any last questions, Mitchelmore's words kept echoing in my head, and I couldn't help but cast a suspicious glance at my socks. These may indeed have been the antimicrobial pair I bought recently from L.L. Bean. Hmm. That would certainly explain the funny look I was getting from some of the tadpoles. Before sending us on our way, Simkins invited us all to return that evening for the lab's monthly "science social" at the Fowler Laboratory. The topic for that evening: "Bioturbation—the Mixing of Sediment by Creepy-Crawlies in the Shallow Sea Floor," featuring the work of CBL biologist George Waldbusser.

As much as I'd have liked to stay for that (no really, I like worms), I had already signed up for a similar event that evening at SERC—"Four Centuries of Biological Invasions in the Chesapeake Bay," presented by Dr. Paul Fofonoff, a SERC biologist. So I made my way back to the land yacht and returned one last time to SERC. It was well worth the trip; in his 50-minute presentation and slide show, Fofonoff told the audience of 40 or so who had gathered at SERC's Schmidt Conference Center, that there were 176 introduced species in the Chesapeake—125 of them in the Bay itself and its tributaries, and 51 so-called "boundary residents" of the outer reaches of the watershed. He rattled off many of the usual suspects—mute swans, nutria, sika deer, mitten crabs, phragmites—but also many I hadn't heard about, or knew of but assumed to be natives. These included rainbow trout, grass carp, Chinook salmon, channel catfish, Asian clams, two kinds of crayfish, and even the haplosporidium parasite that causes MSX disease in oysters, believed to have been introduced along with the Pacific oyster.

The two main "vectors" of invasive species are fisheries and international shipping, Fofonoff says—the latter mostly in the form of animals and organisms transported in the ballast water of large ships. Under Fofonoff's Powerpoint heading, "What Can We Do About It?" the choices were (1) prevention, (2) eradication and (3) learn to live with it. Since eradication is usually somewhere between extraordinarily difficult and out of the question, and because "learn to live with it" necessarily means letting the Bay live with it and accepting some pretty awful consequences, Fofonoff says prevention is the obvious choice. And that segued into the evening's most surprising information—that SERC is not only the locale of some important invasive-species research but is also head-quarters of the National Ballast Water Information Clearinghouse, which serves as a central source of information on U.S. ballast water issues.

It was a fascinating note on which to end my Chesapeakeology 101 field trip, my week of magical thinking. And about now, tuckered out from this total immersion in sciencey stuff but with an hour's drive still ahead of me, I could have used one more magic trick to get me home quickly. At the very least, I wished that I could have, as if by magic, changed my socks.