PORT TOWNSEND — Moh O’Hanlon was close to retirement eight years ago when he wandered into the Port Townsend Marine Science Center’s aquarium building on the pier at Fort Worden State Park.
Looking for something to do with his spare time, Michael O’Hanlon — who goes by Moh, an acronym of his name — decided to volunteer as a docent.
“I always liked the sea and its creatures, and it looked like a fun place to be,” he said.
Five years later, Cheqa Rodgers was on the pier, fishing, when he noticed a Dungeness crab swimming on the surface.
Wondering why, he went into the aquarium and asked a docent. Noticing his interest, another docent suggested that Cheqa, then 13, volunteer at the center.
“Suddenly we had this tall, thin kid who was relentless with questions,” Moh said. “Within a year, we made him the youngest intern we had ever had.”
Recognizing a mutual interest in all things aquatic, Moh decided to become Cheqa’s mentor.
Now the Marine Science Center’s tag team of knowledge, the two docents, ages 66 and 16, have developed a friendship that transcends the half-century difference in age and experience.
“I can toss him the name of a fish at random, and he knows the taxonomy,” Moh said.
“At first, I explained the Latin names to him. He’s far surpassed me on the use and the understanding of them.”
“The only reason I knew the Latin is because I’m an ex-altar boy.”
The friendship transcends differences in background as well as age.
Christened Michael Joseph Seanpatrick O’Hanlon, Moh was born in 1942 in New Orleans, one of nine children of an Jewish-Irish father who converted to Catholicism and a Southern belle from Virginia.
Raised in New York City, he attended school through eighth grade, then ran away from home.
He has fished in Florida, managed a restaurant on Manhattan’s lower east side and owned a bookstore in Bozeman.
From Bozeman, he and his wife moved to the Seattle area, where he worked in the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center.
Cheqa was born in California in 1993, grew up in Santa Fe and California and moved to Port Townsend when he was 13.
An only child, he has been home-schooled most of his life and is now a junior in ICE, the Individualized Choice Education program.
His name, pronounced like “Che” in Spanish plus ‘ka,’ is an Incan word that means truth.
What do Moh and Cheqa talk about as they work together in the aquarium in the summer or the Natural History exhibit in winter?
“Inevitably, fish,” Moh said.
Cheqa was an ardent fisherman when he started volunteering, but between Moh’s intellectual challenges and the hands-on work in the aquarium, his knowledge has broadened.
In addition to being docents together, Moh and Cheqa do outreach at community events, bringing things that pique people’s curiosity — whale baleen, shark’s teeth, opercula — anything that swims in the ocean or is attached to the bottom.
“My first, last and always love is the aquarium,” Moh said.
Moh said he still does his best to mentor Cheqa, setting him tasks and quizzing him on the genus and species of fish. But it’s hard to keep ahead of Cheqa’s curiosity, which is insatiable.
“He has become the center’s best identifier,” Moh said. “He took the title away from me.
“He’s also the best catcher.”
A catcher is a person who goes out in the spring and collects sea creatures for the center’s aquarium to replace the ones released in the fall.
Collecting is one of Cheqa’s favorite jobs.
“You can’t beat hauling in a new net full of squirming new animals,” he said. “I get excited every time I read about a new species of fish. I never get tired of it.”
During the school year, Cheqa works two days a week at the Natural History Building, helps Daniel Molotsky teach biology classes at the high school and teaches nature center subjects to elementary and middle school students.
In the summer, he comes in every day to work as docent in the aquarium building and enjoys meeting and talking with people.
He also works with the “Home Crew,” the group of volunteers who feed the animals and clean the touch tanks and aquariums once a week.
“There have been some 10-hour days,” Cheqa said.
When he finishes his high school education, Cheqa plans to go to college, possibly the University of California at Santa Cruz, and earn a doctorate in marine icthyology, then see where it takes him.
“To my mind, if we do nothing else at this center but encourage him to get a marine science degree of some kind or another, that would have fulfilled our purpose,” Moh said.
“I feel that our mission is education, in general to the public, and by producing the people who are going to be leaders in dealing with the issues of the Salish Sea.”
In return, Cheqa said, Moh has shaped the way he looks at the world and the animals in it.
“You not only gave me a lot of knowledge, but have given me the tools to find the knowledge myself and know what to do with it,” Cheqa said, looking at Moh, “and you’re a really good friend to talk fish stories with.”
For more information about the Port Townsend MarineScience Center, see www.ptmsc.org/ or phone 360-385-5582 or 800-566-3932.
Jennifer Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.