Amy Fleischer is a teacher at Nauset Regional Middle School. But for most of July, she’s part of a team exploring California’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and mapping the seafloor aboard the exploration ship E/V Nautilus. One of the main goals of the mission is to find where the coastline was during the last ice age.
Fleischer is one of twenty-four teachers, as well as nineteen students, one artist, and a modestly-sized scientific team currently aboard E/V Nautilus. The team has two main tools at hand - a sonar system that can be used to map the seafloor, and a remotely operated vehicle that streams video footage to the ship in real-time, and can collect samples of rocks, sediment, or sea life.
Right now, they’re putting those tools to work, trying to figure out where the shoreline was approximately 20,000 years ago, when so much water was bound up in glaciers that sea level was 300 meters lower than it is today.
“If you think about the beaches we see today, you see high-energy systems - lots of waves hitting the shore. Wave and wind abrasion is causing weathering and erosion, and it creates sculpted features like canyon walls, sea caves, spires and arches,” explained Fleischer. “When we look at the paleo-coastlines in the Channel Islands, we’re looking 300 meters below sea level for those same features. So, we’re on the hunt for submerged sea caves.”
Along the way, they’re also seeing plenty of interesting - and often, relatively unknown – deep-sea life. Last year, a team aboard the E/V Nautilus found a "mysterious purple orb" that no one could identify. Researchers have since figured out that it is a snail with a small shell, and a large, lumpy, purple foot.
Less than halfway into the current mission, Fleischer says one of the most unusual things they’ve seen is a fish, eating a fish, eating a fish. They’ve also encountered a ghost shark, and a bluntnose six-gill shark - a deep-sea species that is one of the largest sharks in the Eastern Pacific.
But the ultimate thrill for Fleischer is bringing both the science and her experience on the E/V Nautilus back to the classroom. There are clear parallels between researchers' efforts to find ancient coastlines and what Fleischer teaches Nauset middle-schoolers about Cape Cod's geological origins, erosion, climate change, and modern sea level rise.
“Everything that we’re doing out here directly relates to the curriculum I’m teaching in grades seven and eight,” Fleischer said.