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It's a family thing, a tradition. Sundays are usually tide pool exploration day and sisters Caitlin and Colleen are regulars at many of the tide pools along the shores of La Jolla, in southern California. "They're some of the best I've seen," explains Caitlin, eleven.

So when her school's fifth grade teachers announced the annual science project fair, Caitlin decided to study tide pools. Before she returned from school that day, Caitlin had already drafted her hypothesis, what she wanted to try and prove. She wanted to demonstrate that all the animals in tide pools feed on surrounding microscopic life. After collecting her equipment and arranging to use a microscope at the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, Caitlin set out for the shore.

"Almost 61 [degrees]," Caitlin shouted out her readings and returned the thermometer to the tide pool just to be sure. "It's better to spend a little more time and be accurate than rush," Caitlin says. She runs a tape measure along the length, width, then depth of the tide pool and notes its dimensions. After the five water-sample bottles are numbered, Caitlin dunks each one into tide pools that vary in size and amount of visible sea life. She notes the size and shape of each pool and counts the number of anemones, crabs, and sea slugs she finds.

If her hypothesis is right, Caitlin will show that these creatures, while waiting for the ocean to return with more food, depend on microscopic marine life during low tide. If there are lots of anemones and the like, it must mean there are lots of microscopic creatures there for them to eat.

A tiny hermit crab scurries across an algae-covered rock, over Caitlin's rubber boot, and slips into the tide pool. Caitlin gently lifts out the tiny creature and cheers on his frantic journey. "Looking for food? You and your buddies are going to help me get an A on my science project," she gleams.

Mike Shane, a Hubbs-SeaWorld research biologist, helps Caitlin prepare microscopic slides using sea water from the tidal pools. Carefully, Caitlin focuses the scope and moves the slide from side to side, looking for multiple plant and animal species.

But nothing appears under the scope. Caitlin tries another sample then another. "My hypothesis is all wrong," she laments. Caitlin looks at her notes then peers back into the microscope, hoping to find something. Anything.

Finally, a disappointed Caitlin concludes that the water samples from her favorite La Jolla tide pools do not hold enough microscopic life to support the visible wildlife. In fact, it looks like the crabs and anemones in the tide pools do not feed at all until the tide returns, bringing more food.

Mike Shane grins. He knows that science depends on moments of defeat to point researchers in the right direction. Scientists thrive on "failure" he says, trying to assure Caitlin that she did nothing wrong. For scientists, sometimes a dead end is just another way to find answers to complicated questions.

"You've just concluded that your tide pools hold no significant life except what you can see with your own eyes," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that. It means your research is sound and you succeeded, though not in the way you expected."

Soon after, Caitlin puts the finishing touches on her science project and stands back to admire her presentation board. What seemed like a failed science experiment turned out to be a lesson in true research--which doesn't always go your way, no matter how much you'd like it to.

The following Sunday, family day, low tide is close to sunset. Caitlin and her sister navigate the grassy hills overlooking the La Jolla tide pools. They dance over their previous pools and count off each one aloud until they come to the shoreline.

Caitlin reaches into a tide pool and balances a tiny hermit crab on her fingertips. "I was all wrong about you," she says to the tiny creature. "But you helped get me an A anyway."
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Couey, Bob
Publication:Jack & Jill
Date:Jul 1, 1999
Previous Article:Nature's Magician.
Next Article:Jokes & Riddles.

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