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Sanibel Sea School’s goal is to improve the ocean’s future one person at a time

By Staff | Dec 17, 2014

The Sanibel Sea School has a bright, enthusiastic staff on hand. (L to R) Dr. Bruce Neill founded the school, along with his wife Evelyn (not pictured), while Nicole Finnicum is an assistant director and Nicole Potter an office assistant at the school. BRIAN WIERIMA

The Sanibel Sea School’s approach to teaching its students can be considered unorthodox, but how can it not be with the classroom being the Gulf of Mexico?

That’s exactly how Dr. Bruce Neill and his wife, Evelyn, envisioned it when they opened the Sanibel Sea School in 2005, as they keep working hard of reaching their goal of making as many people fall in the love with the ocean as possible.

“We wanted to give kids and adults an opportunity to fall in love with the ocean or remember that they love it,” Dr. Neill said. “That ensures the ocean’s future is better kept.”

The Neills each have successful backgrounds, with Bruce growing up in Miami. He earned his Master’s Degree in coral reef biology and sea urchin behavior on Guam and later completed his Ph.D. in conservation biology at Montana State University.

He has strong experience in teaching as a professor at colleges and field schools, as well as on the elementary level and the American Museum of Natural History.

Surfing is a required activity at the Sanibel Sea School. PHOTO PROVIDED

Evelyn has been a creative director in advertising for such corporations as Nike, Microsoft, Coke, Visa and Glass is Life. But her love for biology and ocean conservation, along with Bruce’s biology background, made opening the Sanibel Sea School a perfect venture for the couple.

“We are a non-profit, and our real goal is to allow kids and adults to fall in love with the ocean through discovery,” Dr. Neill said. “Most of the stuff in marine biology isn’t rocket science, and most eight-year-olds can understand it. The art of teaching, is to ascertain how much an individual can take in. We can give an eight-year-old a bite-size of it.

“Our mission is to improve the ocean’s future one person at a time. Then, if we can do that, we can accomplish our vision statement of we can look to a world where all people value, understand and care for the ocean.”

There are numerous programs and classes for all ages at the Sanibel Sea School. Basically, the school offers five different products for people to choose from with courses on subjects such as (just to name a few) algae, barrier islands, biodiversity, crabs, dolphins, manatees and the history about the Calusa natives offered.

The first options are half-day courses for kids, with 30 different courses offered. Each session lasts a half a day, with the choice of joining two different classes a day.

Students of the Sanibel Sea School learn snorkeling, as well. PHOTO PROVIDED

“You can take two classes a day and not repeat one for at least 10 days,” Dr. Neill added.

Another option are the week long nonresidential thematic camps for ages four through 21. The upcoming theme for the holiday camp – which runs during the week of Christmas and the week of New Year’s – will be Arctic and Antarctic themed.

“We will talk about the sea creatures, the science and the people of the Arctic,” said director of operations Leah Biery. “For people who are not committed to the whole week, half-day programs are offered, as well. Each day we are open, we’ll have morning or afternoon sessions. All classes are field based.”

The third type of programming is geared to adults, with a variety of options available such as fishing and the Barefoot Academy, which is all about the ocean, while learning hands on and barefoot.

The Sanibel Sea School also offers classes to “land-locked kids” who don’t have the opportunities to experience the ocean, but live just miles from it.

Students also learn the bio-diversity of the marine wildlife which lives on Sanibel Beach, which is hands on experience. PHOTO PROVIDED

“We have a very strong dedication to kids who otherwise can’t see the ocean,” Dr. Neill said. “We go out and get them and bring them to the ocean. It’s not funded by anyone but a few churches who help out, but we believe it’s right.”

The fifth option the school provides are teenage trips, which last up to a week and visit such locations as the Florida Keys and the Bahamas.

The Sanibel Sea School also conducts research on a small scale, such as mapping the path of the red tide, which is currently affecting wildlife in the Gulf.

Students can expect a lot of learning of the ocean and the marine wildlife which resides in it. But it will certainly not be a typical learning experience confined in a classroom.

“It’s marine college for kids,” Dr. Neill explained. “All classes are taught outside. We are a field school. It’s education while having your experience. We want people to look at themselves differently after taking their courses.

“We like to take people out of their comfort zone. You don’t have memories sitting on the couch, but you create memories when you are cold, when you are wet or when you are pushed to do something you ordinarily would not do. We take kids out of their comfort zone without putting them in any sort of danger. We take our dedication of having fun very seriously.”

The staff is well-educated, ambitious and enthusiastic of teaching about the ocean. It’s a school where most kids or adults have never experienced before. That’s exactly what Dr. Neill and his staff hope for.

“Our number one priority is safety,” Dr. Neill said. “Number two, you’ll have more fun than you have in a long time. Number three, you’ll learn something about the ocean.”

It’s also not a school with a lot of rules, either.

“We have one rule and one rule only, and that’s be nice to each other,” Dr. Neill said. “That rule covers everything else. Most kids know the difference of being nice or not. We like being the ‘yes’ institution. We want to say ‘yes’ to almost everything.”

Learning about the ocean cannot be done in one day, one week or even in a year. It’s a lifelong journey of gathering knowledge of something which owns the planet. The Sanibel Sea School wants to be that introduction to learning about the ocean, that spark to ignite the love for it.

“The ocean is very large and vast, we live on an ocean planet,” Dr. Neill said. “I don’t believe humanity has the ability to obliterate all life on the planet, because somewhere in the deeper recesses of the ocean, life will persist and repopulate the planet. What humans can do, though, is kill all the people.

“The ocean doesn’t need to be saved. We want people to fall in love with the ocean to save themselves.”

For more information or to register for classes or programs, go to their website at www.sanibelseaschool.org.

Having the ocean has one’s classroom is one of Sanibel Sea School’s biggest attraction. But what can come out of it, truly can last a lifetime and make a difference for the planet – one person at a time.