Northgate trio swims with whales at Sea World
Three Northgate High School students swam with whales at Sea World in San Diego as winners of Project Polar Bear. The students created a recycling project and assembly for the contest. From left are teacher Jane Majerac and winning students Rachael Robertson, Sarah Amick and Rachelle Mortimer.
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"Talking trash" has taken three Northgate High School students far -- all the way to San Diego where they were swimming Saturday with beluga whales.
Calling themselves the "Trash Can Patrol," junior Rachael Robertson, 17, and seniors Sarah Amick and Rachelle Mortimer, both 18, won the opportunity to swim with the whales last weekend thanks to their successful recycling project for Polar Bear International's annual contest, "Project Polar Bear."
Sarah said it was an amazing experience.
"We got into tight wetsuits and waded out onto the exhibit," she said. "Then the trainer called over one of the whales and explained the parts of their bodies and talked about the way they swim. I was so surprised to find out how intelligent they are, because they could follow hand signals, and the trainers had them doing such amazing things."
She said the trainers showed the Northgate girls the signs to tell the whale to do things like jump out of the water, roll over, and give a kiss on the cheek.
"We were also able to pet them, and they were so soft," she said. "There also was a tiny baby beluga that was so cute."
Sarah said the whale at first appeared unsure about visitors and was very shy, but she finally came over to the Northgate girls.
"I didn't realize how little we give them credit for, because they're amazingly intelligent and complex," she said. "You think about sea creatures as kind of dark and scary, and whales are so huge, but they're so gentle. Very soft and nice to pet and kind of playful, and that's not something I would have expected from such a huge creature."
Sarah first became interested in the plight of polar bears in her junior year when she participated in a project with Margie Marks, curator of conservation education from the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.
"[Ms. Marks] does Project Polar Bear through the zoo and asked if I would like to start a team," Sarah said. "I asked Rachelle and Rachael if they were interested, and we formed a team and all worked together on it."
Project Polar Bear gives small groups of teens the opportunity to create projects aimed at reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which may cause Arctic warming.
All three girls have worked on environmental programs with each other in the past, but becoming finalists in the Project Polar Bear contest showed them that it is possible for a handful of people to change the way a community disposes of their trash.
"We've all really been interested in the environment and finding a way to give back to our community," said Rachael. "This seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine the two."
"It seemed a bit daunting to try to get everyone in our community to recycle paper," said Sarah, noting that as soon as they took the lead, Bellevue businesses and residents were eager to help by donating boxes for their project.
Their idea revolved around teaching elementary students about recycling and how reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could help the Polar Bears survive in their natural habitat. The girls collected more than 400 boxes -- one for every student in Bellevue Elementary School.
"They definitely raised the awareness of the kids," said Bellevue Elementary fourth grade language arts teacher Sharon Trimber, 49, of Ross. "The teachers were impressed with how organized they were with all those boxes and their PowerPoint presentation. The girls made an impact on those kids by making them think about a global issue. The polar bears were a good way to get their attention. One of our students even created a book about his recycling experiences."
"We noticed that older kids don't get so enthusiastic about projects like this," said Rachelle, noting that targeting elementary school students really paid off.
Along with adviser Jane Majerac, Northgate's K-12 gifted teacher, the Trash Can Patrol became finalists in the contest, which earned them a trip to the San Diego Zoo and Sea World.
"I think one of the reasons they won was because their blog was so well-written," said Ms. Majerac. "Another thing that probably helped them was that their figures were very realistic and showed a lot of integrity."
"Our project wasn't anything new," said Rachelle, adding that Bellevue does not have a recycling program, but there are recycling "Atibiti" containers next to the schools. "But we did it in a different way. We collected the boxes to give to the kids to decorate, which was a different way to go about it. I think it was successful, because we were teaching them how to recycle by themselves, and they were able to take that message home to their families."
The staff at Bellevue school chipped in to provide the girls who all were former students there with some spending money for their trip.
"The girls were astonished by the positive reaction they received," said Ms. Majerac, adding that the younger children treated them treated like rock stars. "They have more ability to affect people than they realize. I have three community activists here, and I hope they grow up to lead the country."
First Published April 26, 2012 7:15 am