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Alaskan adventure for marine science student

Durhamite Sammy Szymaszek is heading into fall with wonderful memories of her summer. She followed her passion all the way to Seward, Alaska.

She’s going into her sophomore year at Middlesex Community College, with plans to become a marine veterinarian, and she credits her interest in this field to Lorrie Martin, her oceanography teacher at Coginchaug Regional High School.

When her aunt, who lives in Alaska, and her father told her about a volunteer position at the Alaska Sea Life Center, which rescues and rehabilitates marine life, she lost no time in filling out the application. It was her independent study of sea horses at CRHS that got her the position.

She was there from May 20 to Aug. 17, working with aquariums filled with some very interesting creatures, including an octopus named Lulu. Lulu was nothing if not prolific, having brought more than 3,000 little octopi into the world, which Szymaszek collected from the tank. The previous year the center had put another octopus in with her, to see what would happen. They found out. Lulu got pregnant. She laid all 3,000 eggs in one sitting, strung them out against the rocks, and tended to them for the entire year by pushing air onto them through the two flaps on her head, thus providing them with oxygen. They began hatching soon after Szymaszek arrived, and hatched in their entirety over the course of several weeks.

“No baby octopus has survived in an aquarium in the U.S. since 1985,” Szymaszek said. “Nobody knows why. The best guess is they get abrasions from bumping up against the sides of the tank, and then infection sets in. In the wild, only one or two out of the thousands that hatch survive. They’re food for fish, and they get infections from bumping up against rocks.

“Octopi are really smart. They will learn something, like opening a jar, by watching you do it. They’ll see you open the top of the tank, and then they’ll lift it and get out.”

A seal named Tongass was her favorite. “We mentally connected,” she said. “He’d get excited when he saw me.” And he had a special talent. With a brush in his mouth, which he dipped into different colored paints, he would swivel his head back and forth, putting paint to paper. (Szymaszek bought one of his creations for $100.) And he was a loveable sort. When Szymaszek told him ‘Kiss,’ he would kiss her feet. And given the proper hand signals, he would kiss other seals.

One octopus by the name of Thumb would put his tentacles on her arm and pat it.

She even enjoyed the two wolf eels, which she said look menacing but are actually very gentle. They can get up to eight feet, have tiny sharp teeth, and have “a face only a mother could love.” Szymaszek would feed one that she called Big Mama. Big Mama slept in a pipe that was in a tank, and when she heard Szymaszek splash her hand around in the water (which got her attention), she would snake out of it and poke her head out of the water, waiting for the shrimp to be dropped into her open mouth. “It was incredibly fun,” Szymaszek said, “and I still have all my fingers.”

It was, indeed, a summer to remember, and one she is hoping to repeat next year. “I absolutely loved this,” she said. “I’ve always had a special bond with animals, and what I learned there I can’t learn anywhere else because what we did was relevant to the sea life in Alaska. I learned a lot more than if I had stayed here.”

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