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  • Maritime goes high-tech with Harbor WildWatch

Nautical Museum

Nautical Museum

The visitor from the Midwest stood silently in front of the most popular display at the Harbor WildWatch exhibit at the Skansie Information and Interpretive Center. In a single motion, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone to capture photographic evidence of his childhood memories.

“I really need to send pictures of this to my brother,” the man exclaimed. “This is exactly what we wanted to create as children; only this one is digital.”

Executive Director Lindsay Stover said adults enjoy interactive play with the augmented sandbox almost as much as children.

“This sandbox uses state-of-the art computer graphics and 3D-projection imagery to make this the sandbox of your wildest childhood imagination,” said Rachel Easton, who serves as education director for Harbor WildWatch. “This sandbox provides visitors a hands-on opportunity to explore the watershed of their creation. The sophisticated technology projects changes in the topography of the sand in real time.”

The sandbox is lined with 8 to 9 inches of malleable sand to encourage visitors to get their hands dirty. The exhibit, Easton said, exemplifies the Harbor WildWatch motto of Learn. Have Fun.

Easton explained the sandbox allows kids of all ages to dig rivers, bays and lakes, or pile sand into hills and mountains. When they are finished building an environment, the builders can let the virtual rain water collect on the landscape to determine the impact on the watersheds that are vital components to a healthy Puget Sound.

Images of the innovative topographies are displayed on large flat-screen TV monitors above the sandbox. Three Surface Tablets allow visitors to learn more about potential man-made hazards to marine mammals and wildlife. Each computer offers steps that individuals can take to protect native plants and wildlife.

The high-tech sandbox is one of three new exhibits opened inside the original 1920 Skansie Family Home in March. Funding for the permanent displays came from a $25,000 grant from the Ben B. Cheney Foundation designed to attract more visitors to the Skansie Brothers Park to experience Gig Harbor’s natural and cultural history firsthand.

Popular field trip

“This is what hands-on learning is all about,” said Stover. “For school-aged children who live anywhere near the Puget Sound, this is like playing in their own backyard.”

Stover hopes the permanent exhibit will boost the mission of the organization to protect the vulnerable waters of the Puget Sound and enhance the quality of life for the fish and mammals that live in and around Gig Harbor. The director emphasized that every display presented by the conservation organization includes an underlying message of respect and conservation of the life that depends on the quality of water in the Puget Sound.

The Harbor WildWatch presentation is a much larger, high-tech version of the popular mobile exhibit that has been a mainstay of the Summer Sounds concert series and the Waterfront Farmers Market in Gig Harbor for more than a decade. The permanent exhibit housed in the Skansie House includes a 100-gallon version of the popular touch tank.

Everybody enjoys the study feel of the exterior of a sea star and the “squishy spikes of a sea cucumber,” said Stover. “This new setting gives us a year-round location to welcome visitors, as well as provide education for students at every grade level.”

Stover is confident the new exhibits will boost the number of classrooms that visit the Interpretive Center for field trips every year from its current number of 300.

The third exhibit inside the old house provides visitors a fish-eye view of what is swimming and crawling around the waters of Gig Harbor Bay. Onlookers will find microscopes with rotating educational projects and an impressive collection of skulls, including a recently-donated juvenile gray whale skull on loan from NOAA.

Other craniums on display include sea otters and sea lions, as well as land animals that live near the shores of the Puget Sound such as coyotes and black bears. The perspective, said Stover, allows visitors to know what it’s like to survive under the waters of Gig Harbor, scavenging for food and hiding from predators.

The live underwater cameras are connected to another set of flat-screen TVs mounted above the exhibit. Stover said links to the underwater camera will soon be available on the Harbor WildWatch website,, and the City of Gig Harbor at .

The Harbor WildWatch executive grew up just across the Narrows in University Place and has been affiliated with the non-profit organization for five years, serving as executive director for the past four.

She remembers that her parents kept their boat moored in Gig Harbor, where she created memories sailing on top of and swimming in the waters of the harbor. She and her husband now make their home in Gig Harbor.

“The exhibit will allow us to connect with our community on a more consistent basis, and will also be the foundation for more in-house classes and programs,” said Stover.

The Interpretive Center will begin to offer free drop-in science programs led by a naturalist from Harbor WildWatch beginning this summer. Additional Storybook Science programs for the preschool are set to begin next fall to support early literacy, science and fun, hands-on interactive play with the sandbox and touch tanks.

Harbor WildWatch is a 501(c)(3) non-profit environmental education organization. Their mission is to inspire stewardship for Puget Sound by providing learning opportunities about the environment to the people in the local community through more than 600 fun and interactive programs each year.

The organization’s mission is to inform residents and visitors about local marine life and elicit their involvement in preserving our natural resources.

The Skansie Information and Interpretive Center switched to its longer summer hours April 1. The Center is open every Wednesday through Saturday 10am to 4pm through the end of September.

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