Caretakers: Meet Deb and Bryan Rodda

Thirty-one years ago, Brian and Deb Rodda got married, and together, they raised three daughters. After Brian retired from public education, the couple decided it was time for a new adventure.

While Brian prepared to retire, the pair also launched their youngest daughter off to college. Thanks to their middle daughter, who attended Seattle Pacific, they discovered Blakely Island and the Field Station.

Deb was a nurse until she found herself calling the island her new home. Thanks to her past vocation she is able to be calm and help students who may find themselves in need of a little extra help.

The Roddas, along with their puppy, Kaia, are a blessing for Blakely Island and Seattle Pacific University.

Educators learn on island

Introduction to Biology at SPU is a course tailored to education majors, and introduces them to scientific concepts they may teach their own students one day. In 2024, Dr. Elena Brezynski led a class of ten students to Blakely Island on a weekend trip where they waded in tide pools, hiked mountains and interacted with a lot of cool critters.

Strengthening structures of strong foundations

 Financial delegations of resources at Blakely Island Field Station

After a fulfilling day of labs, lectures, hikes, and outdoor adventures, a group of Seattle Pacific University students gather in the Blakely Island Field Station dining room—sharing laughter, stories, and the strum of a guitar, while enjoying their dinner. This vibrant atmosphere, brimming with joy and tranquility, fosters the creation of lasting friendships and connections that transcend the boundaries of the classroom, leaving an undeniable mark on the students’ lives.

For the Field Station to continue offering these unique, hands-on educational experiences and fostering deep connections among students, it is crucial that we address the financial aspect. Like any institution, the Field Station relies on funding and income to operate effectively and provide students with the best possible experience on Blakely Island. The bulk of our income is derived from university endowments, which are funds dedicated to ensuring the Field Station’s financial sustainability and are typically earmarked for specific purposes, and donations from external sources, which can be utilized for any pressing need upon receipt.

The Field Station has five active endowments: The Operational Endowment, The Friends of Blakely Endowment, The Ross and Barbara Shaw Endowment, The Zinza Endowment and the Ronald C. Phillips Endowment. Only two are used as an income source: The Operational Endowment, which keeps the facility open and running smoothly, and the Ronald C. Phillips Endowment, which helps support undergraduate research activities on Blakely Island. The other three are used to provide scholarships for students at SPU and other institutions. For the most part, endowments give the station a more significant sum than general donations because donors can directly decide where their money goes and how it will be used.

According to the Giving Day website, the Field Station plans to use these funds to rebuild the bridge that connects the dining hall and lab to the dormitories, which has visible signs of deterioration and rotting wood. It will also provide student fee reductions for summer classes, support undergraduate research projects, and address any other facility and repair needs around the campus.

The remainder of the Field Station’s income is from course fees and tuition from summer classes. Course fees are described in the SPU Course Catalog for any class venturing to Blakely Island during the summer or traditional school year.

For example, SPU biology professor Dr. Ferrer’s “Environmental Science” class has a non-refundable $300 fee to cover the cost of a Blakely Island trip. The price varies on the time the class spends on the island, ranging from $200 to $400.

The Field Station does not receive funds from tuition during the regular school year, but it does for any summer courses on the island. Seventy percent of students’ summer tuition for the courses they are enrolled in goes directly to the Field Station.

Money is gained and spent to run an educational and research facility such as the Field Station. From July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, the cost totaled about $310,000.

The largest expense is the salaries and benefits of those who run the station. While this is a large sum of money, the cost is worth the quality of care that the caretakers and all other employees provide for students who journey to Blakely Island.

Many of the expenses paid by the Field Station involve improving the students’ experience, such as food, student aid, utilities, and maintenance and supplies.

The other four sources include operational costs that keep the actual facility functioning, which include insurance, taxes, utility bills and other miscellaneous expenses.

To pay off these expenses, the Field Station relies on the money it gets from donations, endowments, summer course tuition, and course fees. If these expenses are not paid, it will become difficult for them to provide impactful, safe, comfortable, and life-changing experiences for students, whether through their learning or their connections with nature and classmates. Students will continue to reap the benefits as long as money continues to flow into the beautiful, serene, and community-driven campus of the Blakely Island Field Station.

Blakely Island history: The airstrip

Blakely Island history: Spencer Cabin

Species distribution on Blakely Island

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Blakely illuminated

Witnessing Aurora Borealis

Blakely Island is known for its “magic.” Professors and students who visit often note the island’s unique power to create bonds, bring you closer to God, and reveal great truths about the world. Though it’s common for students to look back and reflect on “Blakely magic,” it’s less common to be struck by it all at once, much less on your first night.

Late on the night of May 11, 2024, we set out from the SPU field station to experience something rare: a geomagnetic storm with an auroral zone so massive it reached as far south as the Caribbean—one like it had not been seen in two decades. In fact, NPR’s Regina G. Barber and Rebecca Ramirez referenced the most significant solar storm in recorded history, the 1859 Carrington Event, to contextualize the weekend’s storm.

The road to the viewpoint was rough, even for Blakley. I subdued my video stabilization worries as the van buzzed with excitement and a healthy bit of pragmatism. Of course, we hoped we would see the northern lights, but expecting more when already at a place as special as Blakely almost seems indulgent.

We made it through the dense tree canopy and to the top of the viewpoint hill. We could finally see the sky. At first, we could make out faint streaks of yellow-green. They stretched from the waters of the Sound to what looked to be the edge of the atmosphere. There was already a sense of awe in the group. At this point, however, only our surprisingly powerful phone cameras could capture the more vivid greens and yellows with added purples, reds, and blues.

As the initial wonder of seeing any trace of the aurora borealis faded a bit, we settled into the hill’s rather comfortable thick moss. The group seemed content with squinting to catch the lights. But it wasn’t long before we were struck with awe again.

The sky exploded. Straight above us was what seemed to be some “eye of the storm.” The beams of color now showed the vivid hues we had only been able to see on our screens before. There were audible gasps, wows, exhilarated laughter, and even a bit of applause. It was a sight unlike any of us had seen. Members of the group, like Bruce Congdon, Peg Achterman, Eric Long, and Ryan Ferrer (all emeritus or current professors at SPU and seasoned scholars), said they had never witnessed something quite like it. We all were astounded to see it so close to home.

Looking straight up at this inconceivably large iris-like shape was an otherworldly experience. From a scientific standpoint, it quite literally is; the sun constantly emits charged particles known as “solar wind.” Given the right circumstances, these particles meet Earth’s magnetic field, which channels them toward the poles. The particles then collide with the planet’s atmospheric gasses, exciting gas molecules enough to produce visible light of various colors, each caused by different gasses. It’s the same concept as the “flame tests” from chemistry class that use chemical-soaked paper and Bunsen burners.

In the moment, though, there was no room for scientific thought in my head. Times like this don’t really require immediate attempts at rational thought. The experience of the heavens lighting up around you and reflecting off the miles of water between you and “civilization” is enough to take your breath away. If you’re like me, it’s also enough to solidify those beliefs in you that there is something bigger than us who can bless us with revelations like this.

Thatcher’s legacy

Blakely Island: Hub of marine biodiversity

Blakely Island, WA – Recent studies and ongoing conservation efforts highlight the thriving marine biodiversity around Blakely Island, part of Washington State’s San Juan archipelago. The island’s unique ecosystems are becoming increasingly well-documented thanks to collaborative research and restoration projects.

Rich Diversity of Marine Life

Blakely Island’s waters are home to a diverse array of marine species. Recent data from Seattle Pacific University (SPU) and the Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group reveal the extent of this biodiversity:

Fish Species: Many types of Pacific salmon live around Blakely Island and they are really important to both the environment and the economy. There are also plenty of rockfish and cod in the rocky reefs and kelp forests. These fish are important for keeping ecosystem balance and supporting local fishing activities.

Invertebrates: The marine areas around the island are rich in invertebrates such as starfish, sea urchins and Dungeness crabs. These organisms are important to the ecosystem because they help keep the marine environment healthy and stable.

Bright green sea urchin, Dr long’s favorite (Photo taken by Duyen)
Small cute six legs starfish found on the beach of Blakely Island (Photo taken by Duyen)
Purple sea star located right on the rock at the beach (Photo taken by Duyen)

Marine flora: The large kelp forests around Blakely Island are extremely important. They provide food and shelter for many marine animals, including juvenile fish and invertebrates.

“Marine diversity refers to the variety of life forms within ocean and sea ecosystems, including different species of fish, mammals, invertebrates, plants, and microorganisms. It’s important because it ensures ecosystem stability, resilience, and productivity, which are crucial for maintaining healthy oceans that provide vital resources and services to humans and other life forms.” Dr Long said

Key Findings from 2008 to 2009 Data: Marine Diversity Thrives Around Blakely Island.

Crabs and Shrimp: The survey found ten Dungeness crabs that were too small to keep, making up 26.7% of the catch. It also recorded different kinds of shrimp, which are important in the marine food web.

Forage Fish: Pacific sand lance and surf smelt were also found, making up 26.7% and 13.3% of the catch. The presence of these small fish shows the ecosystem is healthy and can support larger animals.

Pacific Salmon: Chinook, chum, and pink salmon were noted in the survey, with frequencies of 6.7%, 13.3%, and 6.7%. These salmon are very important for the marine ecosystems around Blakely Island because they support many predators and scavengers.

The data shows that Blakely Island has a rich variety of marine life. Continuous research and monitoring are important to understand how these ecosystems work and to help with conservation. Seattle Pacific University’s Blakely Island Field Station is key in these studies, providing important information about the health and sustainability of the marine environment.

Educational Contributions

The SPU Blakely Island Field Station is a cornerstone for marine biology research and education. Offering courses like Marine Ecology and Marine Botany, the field station provides students with hands-on experience in studying the island’s marine life. These programs have been instrumental in generating valuable data and fostering a deeper understanding of marine biodiversity.

Dr Nelson talked about plants – Photo taken by Duyen
Dr Long and Dr Nelson discussed roadside plants – Photo taken by Duyen

Dr. Tim Nelson, a marine ecologist at SPU, emphasizes the importance of these programs: “Our students’ research has been pivotal in documenting the recovery of marine species in Thatcher Bay and understanding the broader ecological dynamics of Blakely Island.”

Future Prospects

The future looks bright for Blakely Island’s marine life. Keeping up with research and conservation efforts is important to deal with environmental problems and make sure these ecosystems stay healthy. There are plans for more research and restoration projects to keep helping the island’s environment. 

Blakely Island is a great example of how conservation and research can make a big difference. The rich marine life around the island helps us learn more about marine ecosystems and shows why it’s important to practice sustainable environmental methods.

Blakely Island Beach – Photo taken by Duyen

So, the detailed survey of marine life around Blakely Island has given us important information about how rich and complex its coastal ecosystems are. The many different species found show why it’s so important to protect this special habitat. As humans, we need to keep focusing on conservation to protect Blakely Island’s marine life. By working together to use sustainable practices, we can keep these valuable marine ecosystems healthy and thriving for ourselves and future generations.