Jenny Gonzalez checked for signs of epipodium, tentacles resembling swaying wet noodles, on the green abalones in her South Gate classroom the other day.
“That’s what I was looking for,” Jenny, 13, said of a small, light-colored abalone. “When you see the epipodium, that means they’re happy.”
That’s one thing students at South Gate Middle School are learning about green abalones. The students have cared for three of the snail-like marine creatures since January. Although the activity has been in place at the school for three years, this is the first time teacher Violeta Llamas’ “Explorations in Science” students participated.
The class formed eight teams, rotating days caring for the abalones. Team Five — Jenny, Alexis Diaz, Jennifer Gonzalez and Ricardo Beltran — oversaw care last week.
The abalones clung to the plastic walls of the box they’re kept in as the team examined the water. Alexis, 12, checked the water’s salinity, noting that too much can stress the abalones. Jenny made fresh saltwater for the abalones and added a solution that detoxifies chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine. Jennifer, 12, and Ricardo, 13, teamed to siphon waste into a bucket.
“I’ve learned abalone are very delicate,” Ricardo said.
“Sealife is like a baby. You have to clean them and tend to them,” Jennifer said.
Team Five took turns writing results in a notebook and on a chart. The group, like their peers, rarely need Llamas to guide their daily routine; the project is run by marine biologist Nancy Caruso.
Caruso is executive director of the nonprofit Get Inspired Inc., an organization focused on discovery of arts and sciences through programs such as the Ocean Restoration Project. The project — which includes restoring green abalones — is in six schools, five in Orange County. South Gate Middle is the first L.A. Unified school working with Caruso’s organization. The schools collaborate on care techniques and share daily results in a Google document.
Years ago, millions of green abalones were prominent along the state’s coast. Over-harvesting contributed to the wane of the sea creatures.
“They can live for 30 years,” Caruso said of green abalones. “Unfortunately, for them to reproduce, they have to be within 3 feet of each other.”
Since 2010, Caruso’s partnership with schools resulted in 150 abalones used in classrooms and some released into the ocean. Caruso said she was able to start the restoration project in classrooms thanks to donations from farms raising abalones. Those farms have since stopped growing green abalones.
Now, Caruso relies on donations from the SEA Lab in Redondo Beach. Funds for the restoration project come from a variety of organizations and businesses, including Southern California Edison, which donated $1,500 for South Gate Middle, Caruso said.
Caruso worries that abalones may never regain their pre-1990s numbers. She said restoring the sea is now up to the next generation — young students.
Travis Garwick, a biology teacher at Warner Middle School in Westminster, agrees. This year, his seventh-grade students are caring for four abalones.
“You can have the greatest technology, but if you don’t have a real-world connection to what kids are learning and give them a voice, you’re not reaching as deeply as you can into that person,” Garwick said. “Education is not just about facts but lighting a fire under the students.”
In Llamas’ classroom, Team Five spent the entire class checking the nursery’s pH levels and feeding the creatures kelp. Llamas looked on, noting that many of her students have limited resources to experience marine life outside the classroom.
“This could open the door for them to want to be a marine biologist or an environmentalist,” Llamas said. “They love doing this.”
But the students’ time with the abalones will end this school year. Caruso and a team of volunteers will record the creatures’ release into coastal waters; she always shares the recording with students so they can see the fruits of their labor. Still, Llamas’ class has grown attached to their three abalones. Their names are Ruby, who has the lightest shell; Sandra, for her spirals; and Terry, the largest of the three.
“It’s sad,” Ricardo said about parting with the abalones soon. But he has come to terms with letting them go.