As Emily Skelton holds her toddler, Charlie, her daughter Piper and friend Frances Jane listen intently at the rain demonstration just outside North Carolina Coastal Federation’s Wrightsville Beach headquarters. They watch water drip down from a pipe, mimicking rainfall, into separate sections representing various landscapes from sand and marsh to man-made permeable concrete and traditional concrete. Coastal Outreach Specialist Bonnie Mitchell is leading the rainfall demonstration at North Carolina Coastal Federation’s first Touch Tank Tuesday of summer.
“Look what’s happening over here, girls.” Mitchell gestures to the plexiglass box with sand and standing water. “Look at all the water that’s not being absorbed . . . so it’s flooding, and that’s not good.”
Mitchell walks over to the concrete on the opposite end.
“But look at all this water that’s flooding—that’s not good! Why is that [flooding] bad?” (Watch the video below to find out!)
The whole point of her demonstration is to show the impact of stormwater. More so, she shows which surfaces absorb water best versus which allow it to run off into waterways, often carrying everyday waste with it.
“I think it’s really important for kids to understand the cycle of how things work,” Skelton says. “I think it makes you more conscious about how you get your food [and] where things go when you throw them away. Last year they actually had toys from the beach to help make kids aware of how important it is to pick up toys before they leave the beach.”
Skelton brought her young brood to last year’s Touch Tank Tuesdays and she says it’s perfect for this particular pre-K age because it’s educational but not too organized in a way that they can’t be kids. They can explore and hop around from stormwater demonstrations to touch tanks to coloring and craft stations at their leisure. Like most kids this age, they’re eager to share what they learn after.
“When [Piper] sees a clam in the touch tank that’s completely closed, she will say, ‘Hey, did you know there’s something in there?’” Skelton notes. “She’ll want to show me.”
While geared mostly to 2- to 5-year-olds, Mitchell says they make it a point to have something for every age at Touch Tank Tuesdays, open through August. They’ll have elementary and middle school classes come by, too. Even adults likely will learn interesting factoids about stormwater, rain gardens, oyster shell recycling, or how to tell the difference between male and female blue crabs. (It now seems obvious, but male blue crabs have a pencil-shaped marking on the bottom of their shell.)
Above all, Touch Tank Tuesdays show people just how our native plants and marshes serve as habitat to species vital to our ecosystem and ultimately our daily lives. Staged throughout the outdoor and downstairs area of NCCF’s facilities (just beside the Wrightsville Beach Museum and Visitors Center), families and kids roam from one station to the next. “Whoas” and “look at that!” echo at every turn. Mitchell and I stop at the live oyster tank. They play one of the largest, multifaceted roles in our coastal community.
“One of the biggest reasons we love our oysters is they clean and filter our water,” Mitchell notes. “One oyster can filter 50 gallons of water a day. They also provide critical habitat; they are a source of shelter and food for so many wildlife we care about. Then, of course, people love eating oysters so they benefit our economy by putting shell-fishers to work.”
Nearby is another familiar sight: fiddler crabs hiding deep beneath the sand-filled aquarium, each given away only by their bubbly breaths percolating through holes the size of a pencil’s eraser. They represent a healthy estuarine shoreline. Yet, it’s the giant tongue-like mass ballooning from a conch shell in another tank which steals my attention.
“Tell me about this guy,” I urge as we walk closer.
I have never seen the bright orange-choral glob, a.k.a. a living conch, in action before now. Mitchell explains the horse conch is carnivorous—as opposed to typical herbivore conchs. It’s strong enough to pry open clams easily.
Of course, these displays are more “look” tanks leading up to the touch tank at the center of it all. Every animal is collected the day before or that morning and released later that day. Hermit crabs, sea spiders, dead man’s fingers, blue crabs, and sea squirts are among the sea creatures gently picked up and observed.
NCCF have added a couple of items to 2019’s Touch Tank Tuesdays, such as a large oyster demonstration station to see their filtration abilities up close. They also have another feature on water quality as related to stormwater runoff. The mock house, yard and street is flooded in rain to show how pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste, garbage, oil and gas from cars are washed into our waterways with stormwater.
“Stormwater runoff is our number-one major water pollution problem,” Mitchell states, “and that’s the number-one goal that [NCCF] works toward: clean water.”
We walk through the toys, games and coloring tables. A microscope station for kids to investigate algae species is set up with a large screen so findings can be displayed and easily explained. All of the stations are manned by NCCF staff and volunteers like Cathy Meyer, who is the resident shell expert and touches on such things as the differences between three species of whelk conchs and how they breed.
Touch Tank Tuesdays are free but donations are encouraged to help NCCF continue outreach events. Metered parking is available at Wrightsville Beach Historic Square, free for the first two hours, but space is very limited. Folks may also park at the Wrightsville Beach Park (3 Bob Sawyer Dr.) and walk over.