NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

March 13, 2009

Introducing the giant Humboldt squid; Marine biology teacher is taking students to new depths with predatory sea creature

Marine biology teacher is taking students to new depths with predatory sea creature

By Lynne Hendricks

Marine biology teacher Rob Yeomans has been teaching his students at Newburyport High School about the aggressive, predatory sea creature of the Pacific known as the giant Humboldt squid for some time. But situated here on the Northeast coast, he never imagined he'd get to show them one up close.

Thanks to the generosity of professor Bill Gilly of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Calif., Yeomans won't have to depend on the Discovery Channel to introduce his students to the squid this year.

Gilly, whose life's work is studying the cannibalistic West Coast creature, recently sent Yeomans a 6-foot long Humboldt squid. It arrived packed in dry ice and has been sitting in Yeomans' freezer at home ever since, awaiting dissection by his marine biology class.

"It's on top of the shark," said Yeomans' wife, Kate, who shares her husband's enthusiasm for ocean creatures and helps run the couple's nonprofit waterfront education program, Boat Camp in Newburyport.

The squid will keep the shark company until Rob Yeomans is ready to cover cephalopods (marine mollusks) with his students sometime next month.

"My freezer's a disturbing place," Yeomans admitted.

Any other given year, dissecting the blue shark in Yeomans' freezer would be the highlight for the high school marine biology students. But this year, Yeomans had a hunch he could do better.

Professor Gilly's Discovery Channel film, "Killer Squid," has been a regular part of Yeomans' marine biology curriculum. When Gilly came out with a second film last year titled "Squid Invasion," about an influx of the aggressive squid assaulting fish populations in California, Yeomans took a chance and tried to contact the professor.

"I Googled (Gilly's) name and found his e-mail address and introduced myself," Yeomans said, "and he wrote back within two to three hours."

It just so happened Gilly was headed out with his graduate students on a squid fishing expedition, and he promised Yeomans he'd try to land a squid for him while he was out. A few weeks later, Gilly called back; a squid was indeed on its way to Massachusetts.

"You could have peeled him off the ceiling when he got that call, he was so excited," Kate Yeomans said of her husband.

Not only did Gilly agree to send Rob Yeomans a squid, but he offered him use of specially designed lesson plans on the Humboldt squid that his graduate students have crafted. And he asked Yeomans to pilot the program for him through his nonprofit Boat Camp organization.

"He said, 'I'll give you a squid, and here's some lesson plans. Tell me how they work for you,'" Yeomans said.

Yeomans said Gilly, who is considered the world's foremost Humboldt authority, would like to start an outreach program with educators, where he supplies "squid kits" via his Web site to anyone around the country. As part of that initiative, Yeomans hopes to offer workshops in the Boat Camp's classroom for teachers to learn how to do the dissections before they present them to their students.

Gilly has devoted the past 30 years to studying the Humboldt squid, including spending several months in the field. And since the species began invading California waters in record high numbers last year, he's been at the forefront of a group of scientists trying to figure out why. Yeomans said some theories center around overfishing of the Humboldts' predators: sharks.

"These squid only live one year," Yeomans said. "They mate and lay eggs into an egg mass about the size of a Volkswagen. Four days after fertilization, there's a baby squid that will grow to 5 to 6 feet in one year."

Since the squid dwells primarily in depths beyond man's ability to explore, Yeomans said not much is known about them. They're regarded as members of the squid family that attack divers who drop into the water with cameras attempting to capture the creatures' image on film. They're also seen as cannibals that will ravage sisters and brothers when in the midst of an eating frenzy, and as the Diablo Rojo, or red devil, for their ability to change the color of their skin from white to red.

Yeomans, who grew up fishing the area waters, has spent the last several years teaching marine education to students, both at the high school as well as previously through the Coastal Discoveries ocean education camp and now his own Boat Camp on the Merrimack River. He and his wife are hoping that through their work with Gilly, they can create a coast-to-coast educational cooperative, where their Boat Camp can share native species with California coastal schools in exchange for Newburyport-area students learning more about squid and other species native to the Pacific.

But until summertime, Yeomans' main focus is to provide an exciting curriculum for his high school students, most of whom already know a little something about marine biology, having spent summers with him aboard his floating classroom.

"Many of his students that take his marine biology class were on the boat with him," Kate Yeomans said. "Most of them know him as Captain Rob and not Mr. Yeomans."