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07/10/2014 at 3:18pm

Searching for Sea StarsSowing the Seeds of
Future Conservationists

Many of our local kids attend a camp of some sort this time of year. From trips to Disney World to sports to entertainment, our area has plenty of opportunities for young folks to have fun on the long, hot summer days. One camp is unique, however, in that it is all about nature - at the Ostego Bay Foundation's Marine Science Center camp, kids not only have fun but also learn about our back bay ecosystem and all the critters than inhabit it. This week we decided to follow the youngest group of campers at the Center - the Sea Stars - to 'fish out' what it's all about.

Ostego Bay campers are divided into three groups based on age, with each group meeting for a week from 9am-4pm at the Marine Science Center on San Carlos Island. The group called the 'Sea Stars' (ages Kindergarten - 8 years) we met were all either 7 or 8 years old, and were under the tutelage of Alva Middle School teacher Sherrie Sukovich, who has been an instructor at the camp for the past eight years.

"We take the youngest group out to places like Bowditch and Lover's Key, where we give them hand nets to see what they can find,” Sherrie told us. "They bring their catch back to our aerated buckets, and we explain to them what it is and if it can survive the trip we bring it back to the Center's aquarium so the kids can watch the sea life in it's natural environment. A lot of them have seen things like oysters and barnacles out in the open, but few have seen these creatures when they're alive and moving.”

The day we visited the Sea Stars in the field they filled Sukovich's bucket with everything from hermit crabs to tiny baby flounders.

"In the mornings, I take the kids to the docks behind Bonita Bill's where they catch shrimp to feed to the fish at the Center,” she said. "Even there it's amazing what they find - tiny puffer fish, nudibranchs (a diverse, often colorful form of sea slug) and other fish.”

Sukovich and her helper, Florida Institute of Technology molecular biology major Shelby Zielinkski, also take the campers to Lover's Key and Newton Park where they learn about shells and echinoderms (starfish, sand dollars, sea urchins). When not in the field, they are in the Center's classroom where they see pictures of the things they will find that day and help take care of all the critters living in the various aquariums.

Once they've been Sea Stars, many kids return each summer to continue their watery experience as Loggerheads (ages 9-11) and finally Tiger Sharks (12 and up).

"We see the same kids come year after year because they are excited about what they learn,” said Shelby. "With the Loggerheads, we take them to the seagrass beds like the Sea Stars, only this time they learn about water quality and the ecology of local waters. Then when they become Tiger Sharks, they get to establish testing sites where they learn how to monitor water quality.”

The campers also enjoy one afternoon of 'blow off' time. For the Sea Stars, that was a trip to the Beach Pool where they intermingled with kids from other camps. For the Tiger Sharks, they go deep-sea fishing!

There are four more camps scheduled at the Center this summer: next week, July 14-18th, will be the Tiger Sharks; July 21st-25th, Loggerheads; July 28th-August 1st, Sea Stars and August 4th-8th a combination of Sea Stars and Loggerheads. The five-day camps cost $250 per camper and all include a graduation luncheon and certificate on the last day. For more information, call the Ostego Bay Foundation at 239-765-8101 or visit

Keri Hendry Weeg