The Lake Erie Islands region is a great place to go for a little fun in the summer sun, but summer also brings a chance to check out some serious scientific research going on at Gibraltar Island
Gibraltar Island is home to Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory, where students, educators and other researchers work to identify and address some of the biggest environmental challenges facing the Great Lakes region, and Lake Erie in particular.
Stone Lab is the oldest freshwater biological research field station in the United States, and the best way to see the lab and learn about the work going on there is to take one of the two-hour student-led tours offered each summer.
Gibraltar Island, sometimes called the "Gem of Lake Erie", is 6.55 acres and sits just across from Put-in-Bay on neighboring South Bass Island. Gibraltar Island eventually gained its name because it reminded people of the dolomite rock ledges of the European Rock of Gibraltar.
Gibraltar Island, part of present-day Put-in-Bay Township, passed through several different owners during its earlier years.
The State of Connecticut once owned the island and sold it to New York banker Pierpont Edwards in 1807.
The island served as a likely lookout point for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and his soldiers during the climactic Battle of Lake Erie in 1813.
Edwards sold the island to Jose DeRivera in 1854, who in turn sold it to Sandusky native and Civil War-era financier Jay Cooke for $3,001 in 1864. Cooke built a 15-room home on Gibraltar Island as a vacation getaway for his family. Cooke died in 1905, but his daughter Laura Barney kept the island until selling it to Julius Stone in 1925.
Stone happened to be an Ohio State University trustee and the son of Prussian mathematician and astronomical researcher Franz Theodore Stone.
Julius Stone knew about the school's Lake Laboratory, which started operating in 1895 on the second floor of a fish hatchery in Sandusky, Ohio. Stone's connection to OSU and his respect for his father's work led him to donate the land at Gibraltar Island to the university as a lab location and ask the school to name the facility for his father.
The school completed the lab's main 21-room building in 1928 and began offering classes there in 1929.
Stone Lab works with the Center for Lake Erie Area Research (CLEAR) and the Ohio Sea Grant Program to operate OSU's Lake Erie program.
The lab offers more than two dozen college-credit courses for undergraduate, graduate and advanced high school students each summer. Grade school students also come to the island throughout the year for science workshops. There are even opportunities for non-credit classes and remote learning with lectures, research papers and publications available online.
Much of the lab's research focuses on western Lake Erie. The lake's shoreline between Detroit and Cleveland has a high concentration of residents and businesses, making it an ideal place to study the effect of a heavily populated area on the lake.
Our tour of Gibraltar Island started at the main Stone Lab building where university students shared some information about ongoing research, classes and scientific projects in subjects like biology, geology, natural resources and conservation issues at the island.
We learned a little bit about the Lake Erie water snakes, a subspecies of the northern water snake that developed about 3,000 years ago in the wake of glacial movement in the area that resulted in separating large groups of the northern water snake from the mainland. The water snake population of the islands developed some unique characteristics like a dull grey coloring that more closely matched the grey bedrock terrain than the distinctly banded patterned skin of the mainland water snakes.
Today the federal government classifies the Lake Erie water snakes, which have one of the smallest ranges of any snake on earth, as threatened.
The non-venomous snakes are especially important to Lake Erie because they have a taste for gobies, an invasive species that disturbs the natural food chain for smallmouth bass, wall eye and other bottom-dwelling fish native to the area and popular among fishers and diners.
The Ohio Division of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife classifies the snakes as endangered, and there are fines for killing or harming them.
Stone Lab is also doing interesting work and research in the area of energy production and conservation.
The lab installed a number of solar energy and thermal panels on Gibraltar Island in 2012 and 2013 as part of an effort to decrease the facility's dependence on the conventional electrical grid. One goal of the program is to reduce conventional energy use at the lab by 10-25 percent. The solar energy project also gives students a chance to study and research the process of creating sustainable energy and compare the effectiveness of different energy collection options.
Our tour of Gibraltar Island also included learning about the island's history, visiting Perry's Lookout, looking at the exterior of Cooke's Castle and glimpsing glacial grooves on the island.
The tours run from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Wednesdays from mid-June through mid-August. We arrived at the Boardwalk Restaurant Harbor Taxi Landing in Put-in-Bay by 10:45 a.m. to take a water taxi to Gibraltar Island for the tour. Cost is $6 for a round-trip water taxi ticket. The $10 tour fee ($5 for children 6-12) helps support Stone Lab student scholarships.
The summer tours generally draw 5 to 50 people each week (we toured the island with a group of about 40 or 50 folks).
There is also an annual open house and tour at Gibraltar Island in early September.
Want to learn more about Gibraltar and other Lake Erie Islands? Check out Ohio's Lake Erie Island by Chad Waffen or Lake Erie Islands: Sketches and Stories of the First Century After the Battle of Lake Erie by Michael Gora.
Thanks to the Lake Erie Shores & Islands Visitors Bureau and Miller Ferries for sponsoring my visit to Put-in-Bay, providing lodging, ferry transportation, help arranging visits to South Bass Island and Put-in-Bay attractions for my review, with no further compensation. I was free to express my own opinions about the stay and experiences, and the opinions expressed here are mine.
© Dominique King 2014 All rights reserved