Sam Leopold / SoundWaters intern
Sam Leopold, right, a Staples High School senior, shows a spider crab to a student from Central Middle School in Greenwich during his recent internship with SoundWaters. / Photo by Thane Grauel

By Thane Grauel

STAMFORD — To the south, across the six-mile reach of Long Island Sound, shine the sand bluffs of Oyster Bay.

To the east from Cove Island lies southernmost Darien. 

That tidal estuary in between, brackish Holly Pond, is teeming above with shore birds.

Below the fish swish — silversides, sea robins, winter fluke, summer fluke — and along the bottom crabs and snails scrounge what they can. Shrimp of several species, camouflaged appropriately for life in the sea grass or skittering along sand, dart about.

This is the campus of Stamford’s SoundWaters, an environmental education organization with a mission of protecting Long Island Sound. 

For the last four weeks it has been the classroom for two Staples High School students participating in the school’s Senior Internship Program. It’s far different from Staples’ North Avenue campus.

But that’s the point. 

For more than 15 years, seniors participating in the internship program have fanned out across Fairfield County and beyond, getting real-life, hands-on experience.

Boots-on maritime internships

This spring, seniors Vivien Lynch and Sam Leopold were among the 430-plus internship participants from Staples. They chose SoundWaters.

The pair got some salt in their caps. 

They spent several hours a day teaching younger students from visiting schools about the marine life and ecology of the Sound. 

Interns at SoundWaters don’t just stand in front of youngsters yacking. They wade with them into the water with nets, set out in canoes, and hold multi-legged creatures with claws and grabbers for the younger visitors to see up close and to hold or touch safely. 

“Really fun,” Lynch said of her internship, which ended Friday. “I really enjoyed it. I really enjoy working with all the kids, and the different age ranges.”

“It’s also really nice being outside,” she said. “I’ve definitely learned a lot more about the Long Island Sound, and all the different animals. 

Lynch is leaning toward studying business when she heads to the University of Vermont in the fall. She spent a lot of time at the beach as a kid.

Leopold will study chemistry or mathematics at Washington University in St. Louis. 

That hasn’t got a lot to do with shoreline critters, but Leopold said he enjoyed earlier working at Wakeman Town Farm, with the alpacas and the sheep.

“I like the hands-on aspects,” he said. “Hold the animals and show them to the kids.”

Vivien Lynch / SoundWaters intern
Vivien Lynch, left, a Staples High School senior, spent a five-week internship at SoundWaters in Stamford. Here, she and fellow intern Caroline Mayer of Rye High School in New York use a seine to catch marine life to show visiting students from Central Middle School in Greenwich. / Photo by Thane Grauel

Students helping students

On a recent Thursday afternoon, he was hoisting a spider crab for kids from Central Middle School in Greenwich to see close up.

Another instructor during the session held up a horseshoe crab and asked the youngsters what they knew about it.

Why did it have blue blood? Copper, said a student. A discussion ensued about horseshoe crabs’ importance to the development of pharmaceuticals, and the stresses illegal harvesting have had on the species along the East Coast.

Leopold said he also liked using a seine and seeing what it would bring up.

He and Lynch both said eels were the coolest creatures they encountered. One Lynch captured had a bite taken out of it. (The creatures are kept for short times before being released back into the water.)

Lynch was using a seine with fellow intern Caroline Mayer of Rye High School. Wearing chest-high waders, they dragged and bopped the seine along the shore of Holly Pond.

Nearby, Greenwich middle schoolers wore waders and boots as well, and held smaller nets.

Discovery was the order of the day.

“I found a big clam!” one student said.

“I found a tomato!” said a boy, peering into his net.

One student was found holding a notoriously snippy crab species in his hand, rather than the net. But he lived to tell the tale. 

“What’s this?” asked a youngster, showing a small dark object to an educator.

“That’s a snail, you can put him in this container,” the woman said.

The educator held up a strand of what many might think was everyday seaweed. But she pointed out bumps clinging to it. Snail eggs, she said, accounting for their abundance along the shoreline.

Similarly, she held up a tiny shrimp, and pointed out the eggs affixed to the mother’s sides.

Among the crabs gathered during by the group were green crabs, blue crabs, Asian shore crabs, horseshoe crabs and hermit crabs.

Meaningful experiences outside classroom

Michelle Howard, who along with Denise Pearl organizes Staples’ yearly internship program for the hundreds of seniors, said its purpose is to give students a meaningful experience outside the classroom, no matter where they might be heading.

She said they have a great list of participating organizations, but are always looking for more.

“We have local farms, doctors’ offices, lawyers, nonprofits, companies in the city or in New Haven,” she said of choices for the seniors. “Sometimes they find a site on their own.”

Anyone willing to help the program can email shsinternship@westportps.org.

Thane Grauel is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Westport Journal. Learn more about us here.