The magazine for Western Washington University

Water Wonders

WWU's Shannon Point Marine Center draws undergrads into critical ocean research

Story by John Thompson

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Sea trials: Students prepare to lower a water sampler off Burrows Island, just south of WWU’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes. WWU faculty and students regularly use the center’s three boats to collect samples of marine life. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Finding clarity: WWU graduate student Emily Grayson (left) checks water clarity with Anna-Mai Christmas, a visiting undergradutate from the University of the Virgin Islands. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Aquatic classroom: Cullaylee Ramos, 23, an undergraduate from the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez, records the group’s findings. Ramos is part of the Multicultural Initiatives in Marine Science: Undergraduate Program. | Photo by Rachel Bayne
Finding clarity: Students use a device that records water’s density, temperature and conductivity. | Photo by Rachel Bayne

The green-and-white ferry edges past the channel marker a stone’s-throw from the shoreline, its engines thrumming. Nearby, a pileated woodpecker hammers at a soaring cedar tree and a great blue heron stalks the shallows as small waves crest and stumble up the rocky shore, retreating with muted hisses.

The quiet beauty is deceptive. The peaceful shoreline is at the edge of a veritable hive of teaching and research activity inside WWU’s Shannon Point Marine Center. Located in Anacortes, about 40 miles southeast of WWU’s Bellingham campus, Shannon Point has become a West Coast epicenter of research on the planet’s marine systems – with critical assistance from undergraduate students.

“We offer something that is pretty distinctive,” says Steve Sulkin, the director of Shannon Point for 25 years. “Many university marine centers focus on being a place for undergrads to get field-work experience; others focus solely on high-level research. We’re one of the few that really excels at both.”

When Sulkin was hired as the center’s first full-time director, that was his mandate: to combine undergraduate experiential learning and scientific research. But he had a tough challenge ahead of him.

“We had just the one building, the Sundquist Laboratory,” he says. “There were three or four people who spent time here, but it was pretty quiet.”

A quarter-century later, Shannon Point has three buildings in addition to the expanded Sundquist Lab, including space for housing, offices and laboratories. Seven faculty and anywhere from 15 to 40 students each quarter work among bubbling beakers and forests of rubber tubing to study marine science topics ranging from toxic algae to rises in jellyfish populations.

Recently, the most important work to come out of the center has included research on how the rising level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing the acidity of the planet’s oceans.

Outside in a covered work area sit row upon row of plastic tubs, fed by circulating jets of seawater straight from an intake 100 yards from of the beach. Dungeness crabs cradling masses of eggs scuttle around the edges of their tubs; sea anemones grope about with stubby tentacles and sand dollars sit placidly like purple coins thrown into a fountain.

“We’re situated in the perfect place for specimen collection,” Sulkin says. “There are so many types of fabulous habitat very close to Shannon Point, from nearshore and beach areas to the deep water sites offshore.”

Undergraduates, typically WWU Biology or Environmental Science students with a Marine Science concentration, are a big part of that collection process.

“We’ve got three boats here at the center, from the 19-foot RV Flora up to our flagship, the 32-foot RV Zoea,” says Sulkin. “And while specimen collecting used to consist mostly of dragging a big net along the bottom and pulling it up to see what you’ve got, the vast majority of what we do now is through scuba. We can go down, see what we need, and get it efficiently and with minimum damage to the environment.”

Most classes meet once a week, all day, giving the faculty plenty of wiggle room to plan outdoor lab time, catch an incoming tide, or dodge some bad weather.

Meredith Emery, a senior from Rio Rancho, N.M., majoring in Biology with an emphasis on Marine Science, said participating in Shannon Point’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program last summer got her so interested in field research, she went back for more.

“In the fall I took the Oceanography lab with Huxley’s David Shull, which allowed me to use more of the facility’s instruments than I used during the summer,” Emery says. “This was a great lab course for me, and I really liked the hands-on learning it offered.”

Sulkin says despite the growth of the center and its increasingly prominent reputation as both a teaching center and research facility, too many people – from Anacortes residents to WWU alumni – don’t know what Shannon Point does or how it is associated with Western. Nationally, however, the recognition is there.

“We’ve had more than $7 million in grants from the National Science Foundation in just the last five years alone to expand our facilities and broaden our research – and we hope to keep that momentum going,” he says.

“This really is a special place to learn, and to work,” Sulkin says, gazing out over the rocky beach and Rosario Straight toward the verdant, green hills of Lopez, Decatur and Blakely islands to the west.

As Sulkin, the architect of so much of the center’s growth and success for the past quarter of a century, turns to leave the beach, the heron, still on the hunt for small fish in the shallows, considers flight, then resumes its search.

Apparently it, too, has decided to stay a while.