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Wash. High School Teams To Go Head-To-Head At This Year's Orca Bowl

Garfield High School students will put their smarts to the test to defend their title at the annual Orca Bowl at the University of Washington this weekend.

In a competition that slightly resembles the TV game show “Jeopardy,” 20 teams from around the state will try to answer multiple-choice questions about marine sciences, many of them specifically geared toward this year's theme of ocean acidification. Then finalists from Ocean Science Bowls around the country will meet again in May to vie for the national title. This year, it's taking place for the first time in Seattle.

Defending Champ: Garfield High

During a recent lunch hour at Garfield High, a small group of students huddled around a brightly-colored plastic buzzer system that looks like it was made for toddlers.

“We’re high-tech. We borrowed this from the Latin room,” quipped team captain Helen Ippolito as she pointed to the tangle of chords, buttons and buzzers.

Ippolito, a senior, stood at the front of the group, reading trivia questions about marine science from a computer screen.

Garfield clinched the title last year after it beat longtime champ Friday Harbor High School by just one question. Still, the team is pretty relaxed.  

Junior Angela Romeo, wearing shark earrings to match her school oceanography T-shirt, says it’s not just about the science; it’s also about having fun. Garfield’s team is known for dressing up as pirates and has been the only team to compete in costume in past years. They've been known to arrive toting mock boats, made of cardboard.

“And we spend a lot of time laughing, and we know that we're not going to know all the answers, and that it's OK to guess," Romeo said. "And we have a wonderful marine program here. The fact that we even have a marine biology class gives us a huge edge, so we usually do very well.”

Idea Of High School Marine Biology Class Spreading

At Garfield, students in the marine biology class can also get college credit from UW if they pay tuition. It's part of  the UW in the High School program.

Many other schools are gaining ground. Soap Lake High School in eastern Washington now also has a marine science program. And the school’s team said they might come in costume as copepods, the tiny crustaceans that are some of the only life forms in the mineral-heavy and very alkaline lake their town is named after.   

Credit Matt Brewer
This photo shows Soap Lake High School's Orca Bowl team.

“We got really close the last two years, so we think this is the year we’re going to make it, ” said AlikStoyan, a sophomore at Soap Lake High School.

Even though they’re far from the ocean, the small-town inland team says they’ve all been thinking about the pH levels of water since middle school. Testing lake water is a standard science-class activity in their town.

Soap Lake High junior Jarred Besset says the emphasis in this year’s Orca Bowl on ocean acidification has been eye-opening.

“I mean, we’re losing sea creatures to this, and that’s one of the things we’ve been focusing on. And I think, it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you want the ocean to not be acid,” Besset said.

‘We Owe It To That Next Generation To Get Them Excited’

Competition will likely be stiff at this year’s Orca Bowl. In Tacoma, one school has designed its entire oceanography class around preparing for the competition, says education specialist Maile Sullivan with Washington Sea Grant.

Whether the teams win or lose, says Sullivan, the event is designed to provide exposure for young people interested in careers in science. 

"We have up to 90 volunteers at the Orca Bowl, so it's almost a one-to-one ratio of student to volunteer," Sullivan said. "And most of those volunteers are ocean scientists."

That means the event provides an opportunity for students to talk casually with experts who often dress in costumes to help break the ice.

The goal, says Sullivan, is to get these kids interested in marine sciences. And, if they win, many will have opportunities to get special scholarships if they choose to pursue the subject in college. The competition serves as a terrific recruitment tool for UW, Sullivan says.

The program isn’t just about helping high schools step up their science curricula; it's also about creating the next generation of young scientists who will solve significant problems, like ocean acidification.

"I think we owe it to that next generation to get them excited about the ocean issues that are going to define their adulthood," Sullivan said. From ocean health to sea level rise, to the economic impacts of climate change, "all of it is so relevant to us here in Washington.”


Orca Bowltakes place Saturday at the University of Washington's lower campus. For the first time this year, competition host Washington Sea Grant is also hosting theNational Ocean Sciences Bowlin Seattle.

You can test your knowledge of marine sciences with sample questions from the National Ocean Sciences Bowl.

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to