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Floating princess: $170,000 boat boosts education on Lake Lanier
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North Georgia science students have a new toy. It’s 45 feet long and cost $170,000 to build.

Dubbed the "Chota Princess II," the glass-bottomed pontoon boat is the only glass-bottomed boat in Georgia, and will be a field trip destination for students across the state and even the Carolinas.

At a dedication ceremony held Sunday afternoon at the Van Pugh Park on Lake Lanier, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper members and Elachee Nature Science Center educators celebrated the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center’s new addition with boat rides, music and a spread of food.

John and Mildrid Sydel, who donated the initial funds for the boat, also were present.

Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy organization, raised enough money in the past year to purchase a Corinthian Catamaran to serve as a "floating classroom" for students in kindergarten, grade school and college.

The boat was custom-made to meet the needs of the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center. The program, formed by Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Elachee Nature Science Center, seeks to educate children about water issues on the lake with hands-on experience.

The new Chota Princess, which can carry 49 people, will replace the old boat, which had a maximum capacity of 19 people.

In spring 2006, Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper founder and executive director Sally Bethea realized that the Lake Lanier Aquatic Learning Center’s first boat, the Chota Princess I, wasn’t going to cut it anymore.

"We were going to have to stop the program or get a new boat," Bethea said.

As a result of changing Coast Guard standards, the Chota Princess I, originally able to carry about 40 passengers, was limited to only 19.

Bethea said that with four to five trips scheduled each week for dozens of students, the boat was no longer able to accommodate enough students and teachers.

"Our staff and the Elachee staff thought this was too important of a program for it to stop," Bethea said. "So we stopped what we were doing to start fundraising."

By April, the two groups had raised enough money to finance the building of the pontoon boat in Tarpon Springs, Fla. And on May 2, Harlin Trammell, who helped design the boat to have a 16-by-2-foot glass bottom through which to view wildlife, took students out for its maiden voyage.

"It’s bigger, faster and stronger," said David Kirkpatrick, a parent and Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper board member. "Today’s the first day of a new era. Now we can take the floating classroom to the next level."

Peter Gordon, education director for Elachee Nature Science Center, said the program started about eight years ago in an effort to teach children and adults the importance of water quality and protecting the region’s watershed.

He said that schools bus students to the lake from metro Atlanta, North Georgia and North and South Carolina to study the biology and ecology of Lake Lanier.

"They think when they turn on the water from the tap that it’s magical," he said.

But Gordon aims to give students and adults a more realistic idea of where their water originates, and where it goes once they have used it.

Headwaters conservation director Darcie Holcomb said the water that eventually ends up in Lake Lanier originates from a tiny spring in Helen. The water then enters Lake Lanier and travels by the Chattahoochee River into Alabama, and back into Georgia before ending up in Florida’s Apalachicola Bay.

"(Lake Lanier) is very important because it’s at the top," she said.

Holcomb added that there has to be enough water downstream of the lake to support waste dissimilation, drinking water and endangered shellfish.

"It’s a balancing act," she said.

Holcomb occasionally accompanies college classes or government officials aboard the Chota Princess II, and said that testing and teaching others about water quality is her main priority. Bethea and Gordon are working together to teach young Georgians how to protect their water quality.

Bethea said that the program has educated nearly 14,000 children on water issues since the program’s inception in 2000. And the Chota Princess II will allow them to reach even more students.

Bethea said that she aims to have 2,500 children aboard the new glass-bottomed boat within the next year, 500 more a year than the program averaged with the old boat.

"It gives our kids the opportunity to spend time on the water and learn firsthand what an important resource the water is for all of us," said parent Brian Johnston, whose company, Honda Marine, donated two V-6 engines at a reduced cost for the new boat.

"The most important thing is for kids to learn how to keep water safe for future generations," Johnston said. "A lot of people are depending on this lake for drinking water."

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