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2 days ago, 07/04/2015 at 1:25pm

Marine KidsMarine Science Camp
Teaching Kids Our Island Ecology

The summer months offer parents an array of places to send their kids to camp. From trips to Disney World to sports to entertainment, our area has plenty of opportunities for young folks to have fun on 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. And the cool part is that kids progress through the different levels of the camp as they get older, expanding on their knowledge from the previous year and getting the chance to do bigger and more adventurous things.

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. Last year, we met the 'Sea Stars' (ages Kindergarten - 8 years) all of whom were 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. On the day we visited, Sherrie was keeping the kids busy collecting critters for the Center’s aquarium and catching shrimp at Bonita Bill’s to feed the fish at the Center.

This year, we caught up with an older group, the 9-11 year-old ‘Loggerheads,’ and were not surprised to see some of the same kids we met last summer.

"We teach them about every aspect of our local ecosystem,” said Joseph Mallon, a popular teacher from Island Coast High School in northwestern Lee County who participated in the ‘Dolphin/Gator Alliance’ between ICHS and Beach Elementary during the last school year. "We change the lessons according to the age group, so they’re learning more about what they discovered the year before.”

Like they did when they were Sea Stars, the Loggerheads collect critters from Bowditch and Lovers Key, only this time they are also looking for larger specimens for the Center’s Touch Tank. When we saw them on Wednesday afternoon, they were busy using a seine net and small individual nets to catch everything from shiners to tiny shrimp, and were eager to tell us what they’d learned so far.

"We learned that echinoderms have radial symmetry, and that starfish eat by pushing their stomachs out of their mouths and begin to digest their food before pulling it back into their bodies,” they told us. "We also learned about the life cycle of a jellyfish and what different beach warning flags mean.”

Pleased with his young prodigy, Mallon said the kids "are born excavators.

"We’re also going to take them on a boat trip– generously donated to us by Al and Kathy Durrett from Fish Tale Marina – and teach them about water quality and how to do some basic water testing,” Mallon said. "When they become ‘Tiger Sharks’ (12 and up), they will expand on that and do more advanced testing, and we also take them deep sea fishing.”

They also do fun things like make t-shirts and go to the Beach Pool on their ‘day off’, where they can share their newfound knowledge with kids from other camps.

"We see the same kids come year after year because they are excited about what they learn," said Mallon. "For some of these kids, this is their first real introduction to the back bay and they are amazed at what they find.”

There are five more camps scheduled at the Center this summer: next week, July 6-10th, will be a combination of Sea Stars and Loggerheads; July 13-17th belongs to the Sea Stars; July 20-24, Loggerheads; July 27-August 1, Tiger Sharks and August 3-7, Sea Stars/Loggerheads.

The five-day camps cost $250 per camper and all include a graduation luncheon and certificate on the last day. Scholarships are available thanks to benefits and donations by locals such as Al and Kathy Durrett and the Fort Myers Beach Chamber of Commerce, so call for more information at 239-765-8101 or visit www.ostegobay.org.

Keri Hendry Weeg