Creating a Living Classroom on Our Local Rivers
by Jane Kendall
Photography by Jane Kendall and Elizabeth S. Millen
As a fourth generation Blufftonian who grew up on the May River, Amber Kuehn is well acquainted with our pristine local waterways. She has always been fascinated with the salt marsh estuaries, the creatures that live there and the delicate balance required to keep this ecosystem healthy. During her teenage years, Amber spent countless hours going up and down the river in her boat. Her time on this water playground planted the seed for her future career.
In 1997, Amber received her undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Georgia. She then became a scuba dive instructor and worked for a local dive and travel business. In 2000, she was awarded her USCG Captain license. In 2001, she enrolled in Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Florida. In between her studies, she found time to utilize her scuba instructor and dive boat captain skills by providing trips in the local Fort Lauderdale area. She loved to educate divers about what they could anticipate seeing in the waters below. After graduation in 2004, armed with a Master’s degree in marine biology, she set off for the distant shores of Maui for more diving adventures. It was there that she met Jeff, her husband to be, who is also a diver.
The emerald green marsh of the May River beckoned Amber home to her beloved Bluffton in 2006, after just a couple of years in Hawaii. She began guiding eco tour charters for local companies and became involved with the Sea Turtle Protection Project at the Coastal Discovery Museum. Utilizing her unique credentials, Amber has become a volunteer for the South Carolina Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network. She takes measurements and photos of deceased turtles, along with keratin samples for genetic analysis, and enters online data. She is also a volunteer for the South Carolina Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Whenever a dead marine mammal gets washed ashore, Amber gets a call to go to that location to perform a necropsy, which involves taking tissue and blood samples and sending them off to a lab for analysis. She takes scalpels, assorted size bags, along with various tubes and formaldehyde for collection and preservation, along with a large chest of ice to transport the specimens.
The year 2014 marked a new chapter in Amber’s career—Spartina Education Charters was born. Amber purchased a custom built 22 passenger flat bottom boat, which she designed specifically for providing educational trips on the waterways. Spartina is a US Coast Guard certified bateau that is able to traverse shallow creeks. This was the beginning of fulfilling a lifetime dream of sharing her passion to educate people about the intricacies of the tidal marshland. Her two hour tours offer a field biology expedition in the local waterways of the May and Chechessee Rivers. Along with private trips, Amber offers tours through the Coastal Discovery Museum and the Port Royal Sound Foundation. Perhaps the most intriguing trip offered is the dolphin research cruise. Spartina Charters has partnered with the Coastal Discovery Museum and the University of South Carolina Beaufort campus (USCB) to study acoustic communication in the May River between resident dolphins and their prey. USCB researchers get on board to visually identify and record dolphin vocalizations with a hydrophone. Captain Amber shares her knowledge about these fascinating cetaceans and their prey. Photos are taken of the dorsal fins to identify and document specific dolphins in the area. Information about the data recorders submerged in the May River to monitor dolphin activity is explained.
Amber’s passion for sharing her knowledge about the local waterways is palpable. She is animated and engaging with every passenger, young and old. While exploring the salt marshes on an eco-tour, she explained what an estuary is, why it is important and why the Port Royal Sound area is so unique. Passengers learned about micro-organisms and the importance of balance in the food chain. They also learned about the importance of the stability of water salinity and got to see how it is measured and monitored. Then they got up close and personal with the creatures in the viewing tanks. Blue crabs, stone crabs, fiddler crabs and shrimp were passed around for everyone to identify markings and touch. The children aboard were especially curious and asked many questions. The adults had several questions of their own, which Amber deftly answered. When the boat returned to the dock everyone departed with a deeper appreciation of the intricacies of the rivers and marshes than ever before.
Amber’s loves: Husband Jeff, firefighter and paramedic at Bluffton Fire Department; Golden Retrievers, Makau and Makai.
Spartina Marine Education Charters: 843 338-2716; www.spartinacharters.com
Tours: Classroom tours are available to all 5th graders in Beaufort County. The cost is funded by grants. Contact Port Royal Sound Foundation at 843 645-7774 for details.
Amber’s final thoughts: “Children need to be inspired by nature, and I don’t think that they get enough of it. They are so much more impressionable than we realize. It is important to me that if you live here, you must know what makes this place so incredible. The May River is Bluffton’s signature.”