Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom Decal Project

JNSI_Cayuga Lake_Decal 1






Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom Decal Project

- Elizabeth Morales, Marla Coppolino, Carla DeMello, Lucy Gagliardo, and Annie Zygarowicz

The Finger Lakes Chapter of GNSI is based in central New York State, where 11 elongated, narrow lakes; the so-called Finger Lakes, are situated between rolling hills, nearly parallel in a nearly north-south direction. The region is home to gorges and forests and is abundant in wildlife, on both the land and in the waters. 

Decal #1 (Above) Water: (1) black crappie, (Pomoxis nigromaculatus), by Liisa Mobley; (2) brown trout, (Salmo trutta) by Thaddeus Zygarowicz; (3, 9) yellow perch, (Perca flavescens) and rockbass, (Ambloplites rupestris), by Stephen DiCerbo; (4–6) eelgrass, (Vallisneria americana), curly leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus), and elodea (Elodia canadensis) by Gretchen Halpert; (7–8) sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) and coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) by Elizabeth Morales.

Project Inception

In July of 2019, our chapter had the wonderful opportunity to take an educational cruise on Cayuga Lake aboard the MV Teal. The cruise was conducted by Discover Cayuga Lake ( For many years, this organization has offered a variety of fun and interesting boat tours including hands-on science and educational cruises to help inspire and engage children and adults in learning about the ecology and history of Cayuga Lake and its watershed. This project was called The Floating Classroom. 

Our cruise was organized by Lucy Gagliardo. The purpose of the cruise was to gather information and prepare for an upcoming chapter show entitled: “Life in the Waters of the Finger Lakes.” 

About 20 members of our group had a great time cruising the lake and learning about the plants and animals, including microscopic life, living in and around these beautiful waters. Bill Foster, the Executive Director and Director of Educational Programs, and his knowledgeable and friendly crew made us feel very welcome. In addition to sharing his appreciation for the fish and other macro-life of Cayuga Lake, he allowed us to help haul in some microorganisms with a plankton net. Thanks to dissecting scopes right there on the boat, we enjoyed looking at rotifers, water fleas, algae, and other tiny life forms.

In exchange for this cruise, we discussed an art project that we thought might add a visual component to this unique learning experience. We offered to paint scientifically accurate and colorful representations of some of the plants and animals of the lake region that could then be displayed on the inner white walls of the vessel. We felt that the philosophy behind the Floating Classroom was a perfect fit for our artwork. Here is a quote from the Discover Cayuga Lake website:

"Discover Cayuga Lake is invested in environmental literacy, not only as part of a good education, but as a key to long term social justice and sustainability. The Floating Classroom is where science on the water happens! Our boat, the MV Teal, is the perfect platform for children and adults alike to participate in scientific experiments and observations concerning our Cayuga Lake watershed. Every year we take thousands of people out on the lake to show them what we do and give them a chance to do it themselves."

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Decal #2: Water: (1) pumpkin-seed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) by Maureen Dunphy; (2) greater scaup (Aythya marila) by Lucy Gagliardo; (3) crayfish (Procambarus acutus, Faxonius rusticus) by Carla Elizabeth; (4–5) elodea (E. canadensis) and eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) by Lynn Bertoia; (6) zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha) by Travis DeMello; (7–9) curly leaf pondweed (Potamogeton crispus), elodea (E. canadensis), and watermilfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum)by Gretchen Halpert; (10) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentine) by Thaddeus Zygarowicz.

JNSI_Cayuga Lake Decal 3

Decal #3: Water surface: (1, 3, 4) common bluet damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum), green darner dragonfly (Anax junius), and ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata) by Frances Fawcett; (2) hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) with yellow perch (Perca flavescens) by Amy Maltzan; (5) great blue heron (Ardea herodias) by Elizabeth Morales; (6) Canada geese (Branta canadensis) by Iva Lesky; (7) loons (Gavia immer) by Louisa Sandvik; (8) great egret (Ardea alba) by Liisa Mobley.

JNSI_Cayuga Lake Decal 4

Decal #4: Land: (1) North American beaver (Castor canadensis) by Mary Roche; (2) North American river otter (Lontra canadensis) by Amy Maltzan; (3, 4, 8) American mink (Neovison vison), firefly (Lampyridae), and American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus) by Iva Lesky; (5) muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) by Liisa Mobley; (6) common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia) by Frances Fawcett; (7) spring peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) by Elizabeth Morales.

In August 2019, Lucy sent an email to members about the Floating Classroom project. She had met with Bill earlier to photograph the areas he was proposing that we paint; she then shared those photos with the group.

At our group meeting, we discussed the best way to get our artwork on the walls of the boat. These areas are low to the ground and would be difficult to paint. Carla DeMello suggested, as an alternative to painting directly on the boat walls, having the images printed as high-quality decals on weatherproof UV-coated vinyl surfaces with good adherence. The group agreed that our chapter could contribute to covering the costs. We discussed looking into funding from other sources, such as the Education Fund.

Development of the Boat Decal Project

In November of 2019 at a group meeting, we discussed forming a committee to oversee the planning and development of the project. Several members volunteered: Carla DeMello, Marla Coppolino, Lucy Gagliardo, and Elizabeth Morales.

In August 2020, the boat project committee met with Bill Foster and Astrid Jirka, Director of Tourism and Outreach, to present both options: producing decals with color background or painting murals directly on the boat. We explained the difference in style.

We invited Brian Poulsen, a representative from a local print company, Dataflow of Ithaca, to our meeting. He had produced several decal samples from members' work. The results were outstanding, and everyone was convinced that the decals were the way to go.

We also discussed grouping the organisms in some way. We finally decided that there would be vignettes of different ecosystems of appropriately grouped organisms on 4 ft by 20 in sections, with a very subtle background color gradient to anchor the composition. We discussed the lifespan of decals. He was comfortable with an estimate of 4 to 5 years before needing replacement or restoration.

Bill provided a long list of animals and plants that he wanted to see represented. Chapter member Adrianna Hirtler, experienced in freshwater biomonitoring, advised some of the artists working on microorganisms.

We discussed ancillary items such as printed handouts and web-based images for Discover Cayuga Lake social media outreach.

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Decal #5: Air: (1, 4) Bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and Caspian tern (Hydroprogne caspia) by Carla Elizabeth; (2) snow geese (Anser caerulescens) by Louisa Sandvik; (3) osprey (Pandion haliaetus) by Elizabeth Morales.

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Decal #6:  Water: (1) rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)by Thaddeus Zygarowicz; (2, 10) landlocked Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar sebago) and smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolimieu) by Stephen DiCerbo; (3) northern water snake (Nerodia sipedon) by Frances Fawcett; (4, 11) coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) and starry stonewort (Nitellopsis obtusa) by Elizabeth Morales; (5–8) snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), coontail (C. demersum), North Eurasian milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum) with zebra mussels (Dreissena polymorpha), and elodea (E. canadensis) by Paula Bensadoun; (9) freshwater jellyfish (Craspedacusta sowerbii) by Marla Coppolino; (12) elodea (E. canadensis) by Lynn Bertoia; (13) crayfish (Faxonius rusticus) by Margaret Corbit.

JNSI_Cayuga Lake Decal 7

Decal #7: Microworld: (1, 8, 9, 13) Diatoma, Melosira, Asterionella, and Rhizosolenia by Amy Maltzan; (2, 4, 10) Spirulina, Pediastrum, and Bosmina by Lucy Gagliardo; (3, 12, 15) Nauplius larva, Daphnia and Copepod (cyclops) by Elizabeth Morales; (5) Dolichospermum by Adrianna Hirtler; (6, 7, 11, 14) Cosmarium, Dinobryon, Closterium, and Straurastrum by Frances Fawcett.

Designing the decal panels

So, now we are all very excited about this project! Over several months, Elizabeth gathered the artwork from our members and designed the layouts, which she presented to the group for review and comment. We hoped to have 10 decal panels ready for installation by May 2021, when the MV Teal went back into the water for the summer season. By April 2021 we produced 10 panels of 82 plants, animals and microorganisms by 20 chapter artists. We also produced a beautiful catalog, designed by member Travis DeMello, which includes a key to the panels, biographies and contact information for the contributing artists.

JNSI_Cayuga Lake Decal Photos

Top left:The MV Teal. Photo by Elizabeth Morales. 
Top right: Installation of the panels. (Left to right) Bill Foster, Hunter Zimmerman, Brian Poulsen. Photo by Elizabeth Morales. 
Bottom left: Decals #4, #5, and #6 on the boat. 
Bottom right: The GNSI Finger Lakes Chapter celebrates aboard the MV Teal. Credit: Astrid Jirka

Production and installation of decal panels

The production was overseen by Carla. She worked with the folks from Dataflow to produce high quality decals. In May 2021, several of us gathered with the Dataflow staff to install the panels on the walls of the MV Teal. The cost of the project was approximately $100.00 per panel.

Chapter members celebrate installation aboard the Boat

This collaborative art project was a great opportunity for our membership. It will provide our chapter with a permanent, floating exhibit of our work. Our art will be viewed by over 5,000 visitors annually and provide a valuable tool for educational programs for over 3,000 students. We are proud to carry out GNSI’s mission of communicating science visually.

This open-sourced article appears in the JNSI Vol. 54, No. 2

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