Pembroke teenager wins spot on National Geographic team

Posted May 01, 2009, at 8:16 p.m.

PEMBROKE, Maine — A local eighth-grader’s knack for photography and writing won him a spot on a 12-day expedition to Peru as part of this year’s National Geographic Kids Hands-On Explorer Challenge.

Dewey Sheehan, 13, was one of 15 youths, ages 10-14, who took top honors in a photo and essay contest that drew thousands of entries from across the nation. The expedition will head out on May 23 and return on June 3, in time for Sheehan’s eighth-grade graduation.

Sheehan, whose family subscribes to the magazine, said he sent in his entry late last year.

“They asked for a photo and a 300-word essay,” Sheehan said. “I wanted to write a lot more, but I got it down to exactly 300 words. Then I totally forgot about the contest for a while,” he said in a telephone interview this week.

“I thought that they would like my essay and my photo, but I never thought I’d win,” he said.

Sheehan, who grow up along Down East Maine’s fossil-rich coast, chose a subject he has come to know well for the contest.

“I thought, ‘Not many kids can go down to their yard and find fossils.’ I picked that right away as my subject. I spent about an hour or two taking pictures and a couple more hours writing the essay,” he said.

Following are some excerpts:

“The ocean is about 100 yards from my house and I explore it often,” he wrote. He said that about 3½ years ago, he found 490-million-year-old fossils on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, which is about 100 yards from his house.

“I was overjoyed by the discovery because I had never seen fossils before,” he wrote. “The fossils I had discovered were marine snails and bivalve shells. It was awesome to see their imprints in the shale. The shells were arranged in different ways. Some were upside down (I call these ‘impression shells’), and some were right side up (these I call ‘pop outs’).”

Once he got over this initial excitement, Sheehan wrote, he began to wonder whether there were any more fossils out there.

“I searched in some more shale and sure enough, I found more and then thousands more! Since then, my brother and I have found many different types of fossils, including: brachiopods (an appearance of an open shell), backbone of a fish, a sea worm, fossilized plants, and a coiled rock that appears to be some kind of animal fe-ces. …”

“I have done lots of research on the Maine Geological Survey Web site to find out the names of the fossils. I also learned that they are from the Ordovician Period. During the Ordovician, most of the Earth’s land was submerged under water, which explains why most of the fossils are shells, and underwater creatures,” he wrote, concluding, “Hopefully with extended research I will find out how they became nonexistent in our world.”

As a contest winner, Sheehan gets to bring an adult of his choice. To that end, he will bring his father, Tim Sheehan, a marine biologist who founded Gulf of Maine Inc., which provides cold-water marine specimens for teachers and researchers.

According to Sheehan, the trip to Peru will be a first, both for him and for his father. Though Sheehan and his family have visited the U.S. Virgin Islands and his father has been to Europe, neither has been to Peru or any other part of South America.

Beside the trip, Sheehan won some expedition essentials, including a Nikon D60 digital SLR camera and some Columbia Sportswear. A National Geographic spokesman pegged the dollar value of each winner’s prize package at $17,000.

Of all the sites the group will explore in Peru, Sheehan said, he’s most looking forward to Machu Picchu, the Incan ruins high in the Andes Mountains. He noted that the sacred city is among the Seven New Wonders of the World.

“My biggest hobby is photography, so I plan to take lots of pictures,” he said, adding that he’s also eager to visit a tropical rain forest reserve.

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