Students from Phillips Avenue Elementary School combed the shoreline at Shinnecock Bay on Thursday, turning over shells and rocks with their toes and squinting at little sea creatures to determine if they were alive.
There were excited gasps as they picked up snails and felt them crawl across their palms, and some disappointment as they examined baby crabs to find they were already dead.
But then a few students stumbled upon what looked like a large brown rock and identified it as a horseshoe crab.
“It’s probably just a shell,” said their instructor, Stacy Myers, marine youth educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension, as she walked over to it.
“Nope, this is a live one!” she said, prompting squeals of delight from the children as they gathered around her to see the crab’s legs squirm as Myers held it in the air.
Students from each of Riverhead’s elementary schools spent an hour at the bay under the Ponquogue Bridge on Thursday firsthand about the local ecosystem. For the past month, Myers has run a program in the schools called Discovery Tanks, in which each class raised plant and animal life in a saltwater tank they kept in their classroom, said Suzanne Hulme, director of science for the district.
“Students are so enthralled with her when she comes,” Hulme said. “It really helps them to make a connection between what they are learning in school and the local environment.”
After taking care of things like crabs, shrimp, barnacles and small fish for a month, the students released the wildlife while at the bay on Thursday. The field trip was sponsored by a grant from the Suffolk County Phase II Storm Water Management Program.
Aside from creating young scientists, the Discovery Tanks program also instills a sense of appreciation in the students about where they live and the area’s natural resources, Hulme said.
“It really helps them feel proud about Riverhead and Long Island,” she said.
Samantha Castillo, 7, of Riverhead, had never been to the bay before the field trip. But like a veteran, she stepped right into the water - careful to only go in up to her ankles, as instructed - and ran her hands across the ground looking for wildlife.
“I went to look for mussels and I found one mussel,” she said, but she thought the horseshoe crab the most exciting thing about the day because she didn’t know they lived in the bay.
She also thought the bay was “wonderful.”