CORaL Network’s “Community Coastal Experience” Weaves Culture and Science Into a Unique Five-Week Internship Program

The 2023 CCE group poses with members of the U.S. Forest Service dusky Canada goose monitoring team after learning how to analyze and collect data about a dusky Canada goose nest island site in the Copper River Delta near Cordova. Cordova, June 2023.

The Alaska SeaLife Center is a proud member of the CORaL Network (Community Organized Restoration and Learning), a community of six organizations located throughout the oil spill affected region who are collaborating to build deeper engagement with our communities. Together, we pooled our knowledge and resources to create the Community Coastal Experience (CCE) — a unique learning and networking opportunity that would take eight ambitious applicants on an exploration of marine science, archaeology, cultural history, and other STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) topics related to the study and conservation of natural resources throughout the Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound.

Thanks to some great leadership from the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies and financial backing through the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, this innovative new coastal learning and sharing program was designed with topics of environmental restoration and subsistence at the forefront. Driven by our overarching ambition to promote equity and the co-production of knowledge, the program’s structure remained flexible, allowing space for participants themselves to shape the learning experience. For this first year of the program, we were fortunate enough to be joined by individuals with deep ties to rural village communities in oil spill affected areas, allowing for intimate discussion around shared experience and bringing uniquely personal perspectives to topics of subsistence living and resource management. In this way, we too were able to learn through the experience. 

CCE participant Sarjus Moonin prepares wild celery to add to a group meal while sharing knowledge and discussing local edible plants with CCE leader Sarah McIntosh. Homer, June 2023

The CCE’s five-week itinerary included stops in Kachemak Bay, Seward, Cordova, and Kodiak. At each location, time was spent developing a shared understanding of a “sense of place.” We were welcomed by native organizations and local knowledge-bearers, whose generosity helped participants gain insights into each area’s cultural history and traditions. CORaL partner organizations shared their own in-depth ways of knowing through tours, encounters, and chats with experts. For CCE participants, building contacts within these organizations helped introduce them to potential career pathways, jobs that may become open, and new resources that they could share within their own communities.  

Seward was the second stop on the group’s five-week tour. During their first day in our community, the group met with representatives from the Qutekcak native tribe to explore the area’s history from a Qutekcak perspective, and participated in traditional Sugpiaq games and crafts. The group also explored an ancient Sugpiaq “midden”, an archaeological designation for a waste site. By examining middens and their contents,  researchers uncover valuable relics and  expand our understanding of historical lifestyles and cultures of Alaska’s native people.

The Alaska SeaLife Center dedicated two days engaging with staff from every department, collaborating on the discussion of possible careers in research, veterinary science, wildlife rescue, facility operations, and community education opportunities. As one CCE participant said, “It helped me realize that one degree isn’t the only way to find the job you want and can be passionate about”. 

The group also spent time at the Alaska Vocational Technical Center (AVTEC) Alaska Maritime Training Center, exploring state-of-the-art maritime simulators and learning about the various classes and programs available to those interested in a maritime career.

CCE participant holds a rhinoceros auklet during a tour of the Alaska SeaLife Center’s Avian Department

The group rounded out the visit with a two-day tour on Resurrection Bay — first on a Kenai Fjords tour boat, then on the RV Nanuq, a research vessel owned by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). “I love being out on the water, and it was really cool to see how research like plankton tows and ocean acidification monitoring is done in the field,” said one CCE participant.

CCE organizers and participants on board a Kenai Fjords Tour Boat in Resurrection Bay

These young adults will serve not only as potential future interns and staff at CORaL partner organizations, but as intermediaries in the exchange of knowledge between Alaska’s rural communities and the marine sciences — an exchange that will prove vital in fostering sustainability and the protection of Alaska’s natural resources moving forward.

The Alaska Sea Life Center and our CORaL partners learned a great deal from our participants.  Thanks to the passionate engagement of the eight individuals selected to participate we’ve already started to plan for the next cohort, with an expanded CCE program incorporating their clear guidance. At the Alaska SeaLife Center the CCE participants gave the entire CORaL leadership team valuable information that we can use to improve the experience for the thousands of visitors we welcome each year. By following their recommendations, we will be able to add a native perspective showcasing the rich maritime culture of the region. These gifts will help the Alaska SeaLife Center and all of our CORaL partners better reflect the region’s cultural history. We are so grateful for these gifts –  Quyana.

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