Sea of knowledge: Forest Charter student completes Earthwatch expedition | TheUnion.com

Sea of knowledge: Forest Charter student completes Earthwatch expedition

Forest Charter student Penny Johnson recently completed an excursion very few people her age ever have the chance to experience.

Johnson was selected to participate in an expedition called Conserving Marine Life Along The Catalina Coast. The trip was offered by international environmental nonprofit Earthwatch, an organization with the mission of engaging people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.

From late June to early July, Johnson documented the current state of one of Catalina's marine protected areas and studied the impacts that environmental changes can have on marine ecosystems.

Specifically, Johnson worked with plankton, recording the number of organisms and species present in the area. She was one of nine girls age 15-18 to join the expedition where she said they also went on marine mammal watches by kayaking along the coast to observe when and where mammals were active.

“Every person is a crucial component to this effort.”

— Penny Johnson, Forest Charter student

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Johnson was happy to report that in addition to her wider understanding of the ecosystems along Catalina's coast, she made new friends in her fellow researchers.

"Everyone was so supportive of each other," said Johnson. "It was so easy to trust these girls as they were so kind and genuine, and I do hope I get to see them again."

'Something out of a dream'

The group created lasting memories, Johnson said, and one of the standouts for her was a nighttime snorkeling session. The girls wore full-body wetsuits, which were barely enough to guard them from the cold temperatures of the waters. No matter, she explained. They were too excited to be cold.

"We gathered in a circle and turned our flashlights off, and what I experienced was breathtaking," she said. "There aren't words that can do it justice. Every movement would cause the bioluminescent plankton to glow, as if we were floating through a sea of stars."

"It was something out of a dream; the darkness was terrifying and the stars were calming. That moment will always hold a special place in my heart."

Johnson hopes that by sharing what she learned on the expedition she can encourage others to do their part in caring for the Earth. She feels she has a broader understanding of entities harmful to wildlife and is enthusiastic about sharing with her peers and fellow high school students.

Johnson said that the expedition has impacted her in many ways, not the least of which being her outlook on the way humans impact the Earth.

"While I was already aware of our impact, this trip gave me the urge to do something about it," Johnson said. "Prior to the expedition, I would look at our contribution to climate change and pollution as something so sickening, yet I always perceived it as 'someone else's job.' After being part of the research I began to understand why I was a part of helping repair the harm we've caused the Earth.

"Every person is a crucial component to this effort."

While not totally convinced she would like to pursue a career in marine biology, Johnson said the expedition forced her to look inward, and taught her a lot about herself.

"A part of me which I had not yet discovered made itself known to me during this trip," she shared. "I realized that I have a desire to help others, whether it be animals or people."

Jennifer Nobles is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at jnobles@theunion.com or 530-477-4231.