The world’s oceans boast all manner of actively swimming creatures, big and small. However, a far larger percentage of ocean life navigates this watery world by passively drifting along. These are the plankton, minute organisms that together constitute a whopping 98 percent of biomass in the ocean. Despite their spineless and sometimes brainless states, the forms and functions of plankton are mind-bogglingly diverse and infinitely fascinating.
Broadly speaking, plankton can be divided into two groups, based on their energy-producing preferences: phytoplankton, which derive their energy mostly from the sun via photosynthesis, and zooplankton, which must consume other organisms for fuel. Phytoplankton, sometimes collectively referred to as the “invisible forest”, play an outsized role in the global ecosystem: It’s estimated that half of the oxygen on our planet is produced by these tiny plants.
Plankton shore up the foundation of aquatic food webs the world over. Phytoplankton is consumed by zooplankton, which are in turn consumed by everything from slightly larger zooplankton to blue whales, the largest creatures ever to inhabit our planet. At the Aquarium’s Drifter Detectives station, people of all ages can get a glimpse of this largely unseen world, focusing on some of the species that exist right in Yaquina Bay.
Participants can peek through a microscope at live plankton collected that very day from the estuary. Educators are on hand to describe some of the countless species of plankton found in our oceans, estuaries, lakes and rivers, highlighting their integral role in supporting healthy ecosystems. “Drifter Detectives is a prime example of how the Aquarium is creating a compelling sense of place by creating connections to the estuary,” said Sandra Huynh, an educator at the Aquarium.
The summer program is available most afternoons (weather permitting) at the Estuary Lookout closest to the Passages of the Deep exhibit. Drifter Detectives is a seasonal offshoot of Aquatots, a monthly education program that invites preschoolers (and their parents) on a voyage of discovery as they explore the wonders of the sea.
“These programs are designed to connect preschoolers and their families with nature by introducing science and environmental education to kids before they even start primary school,” said McKenzie Purdom, an Education Specialist for the Aquarium. “We hope these experiences give them a fun introduction into a lifetime of learning and exploring the outdoors.”
Monthly Aquatots programs are included with general Aquarium admission and are held on the second Wednesday of each month at 10:30 a.m. For a list of upcoming Aquatots programs, visit aquarium.org.