The red and white pinky schooner Ardelle leaves the pier behind Maritime Gloucester frequently with a group of elementary students aboard.
They head into the harbor, learning to take water samples, assess water quality, and spot native birds.
The Ardelle serves as Maritime Gloucester’s sail-powered research vessel and takes groups, from elementary students to undergraduates at Endicott College, out to study the harbor. The schooner, built and captained by Essex boat builder Harold Burnham is decked out with research equipment.
Maritime Gloucester, said Mary Kay Taylor, who heads the nonprofit’s educational programs, bases how it teaches marine science on Gloucester’s marine and fishing history. But the Ardelle also sits, says director Tom Balf, between Gloucester’s past, present, and future.
“Whether a kid wants to be a fisherman, a boat builder or a marine scientist, those worlds are open to them here,” said Balf.
Now a year into its reincarnation from the former Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center, Maritime Gloucester is an eclectic mix of museum, classroom, woodshop and laboratory.
On any given day, gig-rowing crews pound through the harbor, students in the COMPASS alternative high-school program work in the boat shop and visitors identify plankton through a microscope.
Maritime Gloucester essentially closes to the public at the end of this weekend, after opening for the season in May. While the center’s physical museum and aquarium won’t be open, staff will still be presenting their programs in schools, and the center will host several events though the winter months.
Through the end of November, students from the city elementary schools are also visiting the center for marine science classes. They have six sessions with Maritime Gloucester. Students, many of whom rush about excitedly and eagerly call out the answers to questions posed by the staff, learn everything from dissecting a squid and closely examining the insides of pollack, to studying animal and plant plankton, to learning about shipwrecks.
The schools program started with Veterans Memorial Elementary School with Grade 3 students and expanded to include Grades 3 and Grades 5 districtwide. It’s called the Ocean Explorers program, and, in the summer, Grades 5 and 7 students participate in a marine remote operated vehicle (ROV) lab, run by the Gloucester Education Foundation.
Taylor said the courses and exhibits allow for hands on learning, centered on Cape Ann’s marine environment, and it’s why touch tanks and research projects are so important.
“The whole place is active discovery,” said Taylor, “it’s not a passive place.”
Burnham and The Ardelle started working with Maritime Gloucester last year, but had their first full season this year. Both the boat, and the new pier its docked on are the latest additions to the multifaceted museum.
The pier, named for Harriet Webster, Maritime Gloucester’s first executive director who fought tooth and nail to build it, was dedicated this year. Balf took the helm almost a year ago, after Webster had passed away suddenly in June 2011.
It was 12 years ago, when 300 or so residents came together and bought a derelict piece of property on Harbor Loop, the former Burnham Brothers marine railway and grist mill. Those residents, led by now-board president Geoffery Richon, purchased it from the Gloucester Marine Railway company.
Originally, the yard had everything you needed to outfit a schooner hull, said Taylor. From then on, it remained a mishmash of industrial buildings, from the old grist and lumber mill to an ice house – and a mishmash it stayed.
The Maritime Gloucester buildings take up the tip of Harbor Loop, stretching out to a newly rebuilt pier. To the left is the old grist mill, now the Dory Shop, run by Geno Mondello. To the right, a large red building forms the center of the the harborfront museum, joining an exhibit on Stellwagen Bank with the Gorton’s Seafoods Gallery.
The gallery houses “Fitting out” an exhibit that looks at industries that supported the Gloucester Fishing fleet at the start of the 20th century.
Beneath this complex of buildings is Paul Harling’s Dive Locker. The locker, an old “mug-up” room for dive workers, showcases old diving suits, helmets, and occasionally Stubby, the Harbor Loop cat.
Between the museum and the yellow boathouse sits a small outdoor aquarium, stocked with local fish, eels, shellfish and several rare mutant, multicolored lobsters. Maritime Gloucester staff and a few local fishermen bring in the wildlife that fills the open air tanks. Squid were plentiful in the harbor this past summer, and two were on display, to the delight of visitors.
This year, Maritime Gloucester tried to set up a tank outside for locally caught dogfish. They kept two of the small sharks for a few days in late summer before releasing them. The tank conditions, said Balf, weren’t good for the fish. Right now, Balf said, he’s working with staff from Salem State and Gloucester High School to find a way to keep them.
“When you have tanks, you have to learn how to approach them from research,” Balf said.
Balf said he’s working on building a “wet lab”, a marine science lab with plumbing to draw up water from the harbor into the center, and restoring the grist mill beneath the dory shop for next year, as well as the dogfish tank. Maritime Gloucester has a request heading to the City Council for Community Preservation Act funds to do the grist mill repairs.
He said building more outdoor exhibits and making the center a place where Gloucester’s waterfront issues are front and center are his goals for Maritime Gloucester. It’s more than just celebrating the history, said Balf, it’s celebrating the innovation that the city’s fishing industry brought in over its 300-year-long history.
“You can’t understand what’s going to happen to the fishing industry without knowing its history and knowing the science,” said Taylor.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.
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