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Spend a "Saturday at the Lab" on Catalina Island

Kellie Spafford (far left), lab technician at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, describes a sea hare to “Saturday at the Lab” visitors. Photo by Sean Conner.
Kellie Spafford (far left), lab technician at the Wrigley Marine Science Center, describes a sea hare to “Saturday at the Lab” visitors. Photo by Sean Conner.

This summer, the USC Philip K. Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island welcomes the general public to visit its state-of-the-art research facilities through its “Saturday at the Lab” program, which began on Memorial Day weekend.

Running through Labor Day, the series offers a two-hour tour of the center including its working marine lab and hyperbaric chamber. The program is offered at no charge and runs on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon.

The center, located at Two Harbors, is maintained by the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies based in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Highlights from the center tour this past Memorial Day weekend demonstrate the range of the engaging activities visitors can expect.

Sean Conner, manager of the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center, took a group of two dozen visitors to the waterfront to learn about Big Fisherman Cove and its status as a no-take marine reserve, a designation that puts a “living laboratory” adjacent to the center. Conner chronicled the long relationship between Catalina Island, the Wrigley family and USC, and the history of environmental stewardship they share.

The center’s staff guided visitors through the teaching labs — working classrooms stocked with microscopes, seawater tables and other tools that help future scientists learn research methods and safe laboratory practices.

Cheryl Chow, a USC Dornsife graduate student in marine environmental biology and a Wrigley Institute Summer Fellow, described her academic career and how it led her into the study of the ocean’s bacteria and viruses. Chow said there are more bacteria in the ocean than there are stars in the known universe, and if they could be gathered in one place, they would weigh as much as 150 million blue whales.

The touch tank, where guests can meet some of the animal and plant life that is endemic to local waters, was a favorite. Lab technician Kellie Spafford educated and entertained visitors with stories about each organism in the aquarium. The group was most entertained by the small swell shark. At one point, the foot-long shark raised his front half out of the water and danced in a circle in response to Spafford’s hand feeding.

Karl Huggins, chamber director, spoke about the history of the USC Catalina hyperbaric chamber and the treatment programs offered at the Wrigley Marine Science Center. Volunteer crew members Debbie Husby, Jonathan Howard and Steve Brown walked the visitors through the chamber, and explained how the chamber crew — most of them volunteers — keeps this essential treatment option available to the diving community every day of the year.

For more information about “Saturday at the Lab” tours, please call the center at (310) 510-0811.