Science and salt air: Sun Otter Tours show off science tours beyond the beach

Date Published: 
July 28, 2017

Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, seines the bay.Coastal Point • Laura Walter: Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism, seines the bay.Seaweed tastes a little different when pulled straight from the ocean. Visitors laughed as they tentatively nibbled a bite of sea lettuce in the Delaware Bay. They were on the final leg of the marine ecology tour in Lewes with the new Sun Otter Tours.

The new tour company is taking people on “science-based learning adventures for the naturally curious.” Jody and Steve Dengler created the program to encourage more visitors to visit cool places in coastal Delaware.

“We are a family of travelers. We are a family of science nerds,” Dengler said.

Steve Dengler was selling windows, while Jody Dengler taught at Wilmington University, until the school’s Rehoboth Beach location closed in 2016. But she wanted to keep teaching people about their community.

So they bought a surplus CHEER bus and can now shuttle 14 people to each tour stop. Guests can meet the air-conditioned tour bus on location or catch a ride from two public pickup spots in downtown Rehoboth Beach.

“They’re always amazed at all the amazing science that’s right here under your nose,” Dengler said. “They always say, ‘I always wondered about that!’”

The Marine Ecology Tour is completely hands-on — four hours with people who love their work, bouncing from science labs to state parks.

Back at Cape Henlopen State Park, park naturalists and Sea Otter guests pulled a 30-foot seining net into the shallow Delaware Bay, then tossed the aquatic life it collected into a child-sized wading pool. Small killifish, mummichogs, black drum and Atlantic silversides zipped around sea lettuce, red seaweed (“mermaid hair”), comb jellies, mud snails and a tiny crab.

“Every single time you do it, it’s different. You get something new,” Dengler said.

It’s not the crystal-clear water of the Caribbean, “but there is still stuff going on,” said park naturalist Abigail Ferkler, who graduated from West Chester University this winter and said she loves teaching visitors.

When on vacation, they said, guests want more than just sunbathing — especially when they’ve got a whole week in town.

“They’re tired of the beach already by Wednesday and Thursday, so let’s get ’em here, show ’em some science stuff,” said Chris Petrone, marine education specialist at Delaware Sea Grant.

The self-proclaimed “science nerd” was already teaching year-round, so he gladly added a public tour to the mix.

Because Sea Grant’s goal includes supporting both environmental and economic programs, Petrone said he was happy to help Sun Otter Tours. If other science groups came along, he’d help them, too, he said.

Guests on the day’s marine ecology tour started in Lewes, by climbing aboard a ship that it is hoped will never be used for its job. If an oil spill ever occurred nearby, the Delaware River & Bay Cooperative’s 166-foot vessel the DelRiver is on-call to respond. The crew are ready to respond 24 hours a day.

Next, they explored the very bottom of the food chain at University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean & Environment’s research facility. On the floating docks, visitors caught tiny creatures and plankton in a fine-mesh net.

They found a tiny grass shrimp with brood of tiny eggs and a jelly-like ctenophore (which glows fluorescent at night when shuffled in the water). Back at the UD lab, a microscope revealed a copepod (the real-life inspiration for “Plankton” in the “SpongeBob SquarePants” cartoon).

Upstairs, in the air-conditioned library with its ceiling-high windows, the group looked out over the university’s 2-megawatt wind turbine, which at peak production can power the entire campus and 105 local houses. It’s a large-scale windmill experiment, as the college tests salt-air corrosion and the impact on bird and bat populations.

They discussed current events and asked about Delaware’s old plans and Maryland’s recent swing toward wind turbines in the open ocean.

Dipping their toes into that realm can help visitors understand what local residents value, on a local or national level. It can provide new perspective to visitors from landlocked states, for example, who never had a frame of reference for issues such as beach replenishment or oil-spill response.

“It’s about people telling the stories behind the attraction, whether it’s manmade” or natural, Thomas said.

People really become sponges for information on the tour, said Steve Dengler, who witnesses everything from the driver’s seat.

“Everybody walks back on the bus, and the amount of information they’ve learned is incredible,” he said.

That’s the point. Southern Delaware has many opportunities to learn and explore. In fact, Sun Otter’s first clients were new residents wanting to learn about their new home.

They’re already brainstorming a children’s science tour, at the request of grandparents needing activities for visiting grandkids. Sun Otter Tours is also planning wintertime activities.

People can choose two other tours this summer: the “Night Moves” nighttime boat tours at Trap Pond State Park and “Alchemy of Alcohol” trips to Dogfish Head brewery and Brimming Horn Meadery for grownups.

Prices range from $34 to $49 per person, with $5 coupons available in many places (online coupon code “SFW2017” or “SUNOTTER”). Details are available online at www.sunotter.com, by calling (302) 519-3580 or by emailing jody@sunotter.com.