LONG BEACH TOWNSHIP, N.J. - While others head to the beach or to a boat, Rick Bushnell loads canisters of pebble-size baby clams along with seashells, fishing nets, and boxes of pamphlets, then slides into his SUV at least three mornings a week and heads to a Long Beach Island community center or waterfront park.
Like environmental prophets, Bushnell and fellow volunteers from a group called ReClam the Bay - which plants more than a million of the tiny bivalves each year to help repopulate Barnegat Bay - are on a mission to tell everyone they can about the estuary's fragile ecosystem. They hope their efforts will spawn future conservation efforts here and elsewhere.
Some days, only a half-dozen children and their parents show up for Bushnell's talks and demonstrations. Other times, as many as 60 people - from toddlers in bathing suits and flip-flops to grandmothers in their 80s - cram into a meeting room or onto a gazebo.
When the volunteers head to the water for their 45-minute programs, they may encounter 90-degree heat, a fog of insects brought in by the west wind, or a rainy ocean breeze so cold it envelops the group like a wet beach blanket, as it did on a recent morning.
"Once I began to understand the intricacies of this estuary, I was hooked," said Bushnell, 62, a retired computer-company vice president, who moved from Philadelphia to live full-time in Surf City several years ago.
"I know that once other people learn about it, they're hooked, too. Maybe working together we can make a positive impact on the watershed and the bay."
But there's fun involved, too.
"It's three years from birth to slurp, slurp," Bushnell told a group in Bay View Park on Thursday, explaining the shellfish's life cycle.
ReClam the Bay is a synthesis of scientific research and public education. Working closely with the Barnegat Bay Shellfish Restoration Program established by the Rutgers University Cooperative Extension, the nonprofit group offers the public a hands-on lesson in preserving the environment.
Its primary focus is the actual "re-clamming" of the bay. Nearly three million clam "seeds" - fertilized larvae around which the shell has just begun to develop - have been planted by the group in the past three years.
Biologists contend that while seeding a few million clams is barely a start in reversing pollution - it takes an estimated one million clams to filter nitrogen runoff in the bay for one day - the awareness it generates is invaluable.
"We've learned things today that we would never have known otherwise," said Theresa Gonnella, a tourist from West Orange, N.J., who brought her nephew, Anthony, 9, and niece Gabrielle, 6, to the park to hear Bushnell.
"The best part for the kids is that they're having so much fun, they don't even realize they're learning," Gonnella said.
Besides talking to groups in the summer, volunteers, who currently number about 150, help build and maintain the clam nurseries, known as upwellers. Others record information about the growth of the clams.
The wood-frame upwellers, about the size of a compact car, contain 10 metal, wastepaper-basket-sized silos into which the tiny clams are first placed. The silos help filter a continuous stream of water over the seeds and protect them from predators.
About a dozen upwellers have been placed in saltwater locations throughout Ocean County, including six on Long Beach Island and one on Island Beach State Park in Berkeley Township. The two-millimeter seed clams - dozens fit on the head of an eraser - are nurtured in the upwellers until they are about 12 millimeters (about a half-inch) and large enough to be planted in the bay.
Once there, the bivalves perform the important function of filtering, feeding and cleaning the estuary. Besides clams, the bay is a safe haven for thousands of species that live in its water, salt marshes and mud flats.
But during the past 20 years, development, pollution and overfishing has negatively affected water quality and perhaps the DNA of clams and other species.
One of the problems that most concerns environmentalists is the accumulation of nitrogen in the bay, the result of lawn fertilizer runoff. When it rains, nitrogen and other chemicals find their way into storm drains, which eventually lead to outfall pipes that pump the contaminated water into rivers and bays.
That's why ReClam the Bay and other environmental groups - including Beach Haven's Alliance for a Living Ocean, which sometimes helps operate the lectures - say the grassroots propagation of environmental awareness is crucial.
"Too many times in academic pursuits and research in a particular environment, like the Shore, the public is kept away from the research or the hands-on experience," said Chelsea Simkins, 19, of Moorestown, who studies environmental policy at Rutgers New Brunswick.
"Many times people are being told what they should do, but are never given the chance to understand the how and why of it," said Simkins, a summer intern with Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Ocean County.
"This project allows people to get up close whether they want to just come to a lecture and learn about it, or want to get directly involved with the program."
Simkins said a simple thing such as being taught that using fertilizer on a lawn in North Jersey can hurt the bay and the ocean in South Jersey may make some people alter how they garden.
Science teacher Fran Zak, of Montvale, Bergen County, is a ReClam the Bay volunteer who teaches children about the species in the bay.
"You really never know what spark you can inspire in these kids or adults," Zak said. "Maybe something they learn here today will lead them to make important changes in their lives.
"Or maybe one of these kids will one day choose a career in environmental science. Or, at the very least, be better stewards of the environment in the future."
The hard clam, or Mercenaria mercenaria, is a bivalve mollusk also known as the Northern quahog.
Bivalves have two shells that are joined together at a hinge called the umbo. The shells are opened and closed by two pairs of muscles on the inside.
The clam resides just below the surface of the sand or mud. It has a foot to dig its way in.
Hard clams are filter-feeders. With two small tongues, they simultaneously siphon and filter the small plants and animals, known as plankton, that float in the water.
SOURCE: "The Island Blue Pages, A Guide to Protecting LBI's Waters," published by the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts & Sciences, 2008.
ReClam the Bay will hold programs Wednesday and Thursday mornings through August on Long Beach Island. For information, call 732-349-1152 or go to http://go.philly.com/reclam.
Information about Alliance for a Living Ocean, including a program in which nets are used to pull creatures from the Barnegat Bay, may be obtained by calling 609-492-0222.