IVORYTON - In Mafia-speak, swimming with the sharks is an experience from which no swimmer returns. Katie Mulligan, however, has not only swum with sharks but also returned to talk about it on a television program she co-hosts called Aqua Kids. Aqua Kids, a nationally syndicated environmental awareness program for young people, is shown in more than 140 outlets in the United States. It is seen locally on Saturday morning at 8:30 on WCTX, MyTV9. The show has repeatedly won awards for its children's programming, including two Emmys.
Katie's work on the television show has just earned her a youth environmental leadership award from the Rockfall Foundation of Middletown. The organization, founded in 1935, is among the oldest environmental groups in the state. Katie, a junior at Valley Regional High School, shared the youth leadership award with Samuel Parker of Haddam-Killingworth High School.
According to Tom Odell of Westbrook, chair of the Awards Subcommittee, Katie was selected both for her work on Aqua Kids and her overall environmental leadership. As Katie herself wrote on the awards application, her goal is to "educate and excite others to keep our planet 'green and blue.'''
Last summer, Katie and the other teens who appear on Aqua Kids spent a total of five weeks in Alaska and Hawaii. The team filmed segments on diverse environmental topics from planting sea urchins on a reef so they would eat invasive seaweed to learning about the natural habitat of endangered sea turtles and studying the effects of fish weirs on the salmon population.
Earlier segments have taken the Aqua Kids crew as close to home as University of Connecticut at Avery Point, where they learned about measuring ocean pollution, and as far afield as underwater reefs in the Caribbean, where Katie and the team had their shark encounter.
"It really wasn't dangerous," Katie says. "They were more interested in the food. It's only dangerous if you get between them and the food."
For the record, Aqua Kids have also swum with dolphins and manatees and fed stingrays and walruses.
The idea of the program, Katie says, is not simply to talk about the environment but to give viewers vicarious hands-on experience in environmental science. Katie says she often is portrayed as the "girly girl," which turns out to mean that she is given jobs for which the standard reaction would be a refined squeal of horror-particularly the time, with her hands encased in plastic bags, she had to pick up what she describes as sea lion poop. An unenthusiastic seafood eater, she was also challenged by the time she had to down oysters.
Since all the on-camera actors are young people in school, most of the filming of outdoor sequences is done during the summer. The cast meets together during the year at the program's Baltimore studios to put together the studio narrative that connects the adventure segments. None of the Aqua Kids are paid for their participation in the program.
In addition to being one of the on-camera co-hosts, Katie is also an associate producer of the show and she updates Aqua Kids's Facebook page daily.
"I like to mix it up. I post pictures; sometimes did-you-know facts, eco tips," she says, adding that she loves the two-way communication Facebook allows. "It gets a lot of impact. People ask me questions and I know they are interested. Sometimes they tell me they want to be marine biologists."
Katie's involvement with Aqua Kids began in 7th grade, but in an unusual way. She loved watching the home and garden television channel, HGTV.
"I think I was obsessed with home décor shows," she admits.
One program featured eco-friendly mansions, and it fascinated Katie. That led to a school report on environmental television shows for children, and then one of her teachers learned that Aqua Kids was visiting Connecticut.
Katie appeared several times as a guest before show producer George Stover selected her as a regular.
"She's so outgoing, energetic, and intelligent," Stover says. "She has great presence. I think she could be an anchor down the road."
Katie has already appeared locally on Fox Connecticut and WTNH morning news.
At 16, Katie is not sure yet what the future holds. She has a several more years of appearing on Aqua Kids; the first co-host didn't leave the show until she was in her mid-20s. At present, she is president of the Interact Club at Valley Regional, which focuses on community service projects. Katie has ensured that one of those projects will have an environmental focus. Last year, Interact organized cleanup of a Westbrook beach.
Katie has participated in statewide mock trial and debate competitions, reaching the final stages in both disciplines. The experience makes her think that she might like to combine her interests and become an environmental lawyer.
Her schedule is packed: she plays varsity field hockey, though she says she isn't much of an athlete.
"It's fun and its good exercise," she explains.
Katie, currently third in her class, says she is a perfectionist when it comes to schoolwork.
"I stay up till midnight getting it all done, but it is worth it," she says.
According to Katie, classmates use words like "awesome" to describe her television career.
"Some people think its cool," she says, "but I don't think anybody is jealous about it."
Still, she admits that it is something people talk about.
"When we have a new teacher, somehow Aqua Kids always gets brought up on the first day," she says. "It's an object of discussion."
Kathy's family includes not only her parents John and Michelle and younger sister Annie, but the family dog. The pet's name is Finnegan. That would be, of course, Finnegan Mulligan.
"We're a real Irish family," Katie says.