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Sea School campers learn about coral reef biology at Big Pine Key

By Staff | Jul 26, 2017

Camper Bryanna Marcom searches for invertebrates during the coralline algae lab at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge and Campground during Sanibel Sea School’s Keys Coral Reef Week camp. The hard type of algae provides a habitat for such invertebrates as brittle stars, flat worms, marine worms and little live shells and crabs. LEAH BIERY

Twenty-five Sanibel Sea School campers had an experience they will never forget under the stars, living rustic, for a few days at Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge and Campground.

Sanibel Sea School Director of Communications Leah Biery joined a few of her fellow co-workers and 11 and 12 year olds at the campground for Keys Coral Reef Week camp the second week of July.

The opportunity to share the experience of snorkeling, and seeing what all the ocean has to offer, with campers, was the highlight of Biery’s trip. Although snorkeling was exciting, she said the campers participating in the coralline algae lab was something that stuck with her.

“It helped them realize the sheer amount of life that exists in the ocean,” she said. “There could be 20 creatures living within a piece that could fit in the palm of your hand. There is so much discover under the ocean.”

From that lab, Biery said the campers took a closer look at the reefs and any other habitat they were exploring.

“It was cool to see them catch onto that and really explore on a sort of micro level,” she said.

The week began with a day on Sanibel to check their snorkeling gear, as well as practice snorkeling and free diving, so they would be ready once they arrived in the Keys.

Tuesday, before arriving at the campground, they stopped at The Turtle Hospital in Marathon to learn about sea turtle rehabilitation. Biery said the history of the hospital is very interesting, due to it originally being the Hidden Harbor Motel with a salt water pool.

The owners of the hotel found that fish would get into the pool, which became an attraction for guests who stayed at the motel.

“They found out that the people that were coming to stay at the hotel really liked to have the sea creatures in the pool. They could snorkel in the pool,” Biery said.

Some of the guests began asking if they could have sea turtles in the salt water pool. That question led to asking the government, which resulted with only if it became a sea turtle rehab facility.

“The owner decided to hire a vet and apply for the hospital permits,” Biery said, adding that turtles struck by boats were among the first patients they helped and rehabbed in the pool. “It became the main facility in Florida for specialized sea turtle treatment.”

The campers had the opportunity to see the hospital, as well as go through the recovery pool area. Biery said the campers walked up to the pool and saw the turtles up close and personal, as well as read about their specific case.

“It was a realization for a lot of them to see how many sea turtles get hit by boats,” she said.

The group arrived at the campground around 4 p.m. Tuesday and began setting up their tents, kitchen and everything else needed for the campsite.

Bryanna Marcom, 12, said they had a competition of who could set up their tent the fastest.

Although the youngster has participated in camps for the past eight years with the Sanibel Sea School, this was the first time she attended the Keys Coral Reef Week Camp.

“A lot of my friends that go to the Sanibel Sea School said it’s an amazing trip. They hoped that I would go. I was really happy that I did,” Marcom said. “It was my first time camping. It was amazing. It was the best thing that has happened.”

The first full day at the campground began early as the youngsters had breakfast and were ready to board the boat by 8 a.m. The 25 campers were split into groups according to their gender, so when one group went snorkeling, the other group participated in a lab.

Although this was the first time Marcom snorkeled in the Keys, she has gone snorkeling on the Sanibel Causeway with the Sanibel Sea School before. She said snorkeling was fun because they were “able to see all the different life forms. They just went along about their day.”

The kids snorkeled at Looe Key Reef, a marine protected area, about five miles off shore. Biery said it’s a really healthy reef with tons of sea life.

The first day they saw a goliath grouper, black tip reef sharks, nurse sharks, reef fish and a moray eel.

While the group went snorkeling, the other group did a sea urchin embryology lab. The sea urchin was injected with a chemical to release their sperm and egg. Biery said you can actually mix them together in a test tube and watch a baby urchin grow.

“It doesn’t hurt them and we release them back in the ocean when we are done,” she said.

Marcom’s favorite lab was sponge anatomy. She said they used dye to color the sponge providing the opportunity to see what’s inside. Marcom said she liked seeing all of the different creatures that lived in one sponge.

In addition, the campers also had the opportunity to snorkel near a large bridge next to Big Pine Key where they saw tarpon, lobsters and shells.

“It was a good way to practice free diving,” Biery said.

Bahia Honda State Park was another destination for snorkeling due to its warm shallow waters and opportunity to see coral and sponges, and the Blue Hole provided the chance to see cassiopeia, a type of jelly fish.

The most challenging part of the camp, Marcom said was snorkeling in the Deep Blue.

“It’s 450 feet down. When you looked down it was just blue,” Marcom said. “It was so deep and clear.”

Although it was a little intimidating, and scary, to jump into the Deep Blue, she said “you just go for it and don’t hesitate.”

One thing she took away from the camp, was how they could improve coral reefs.

“We could improve the situation by using electric cars, using solar energy to improve the coral environment,” Marcom said. “The electricity that we are using is killing the coral.”

Biery said the kids were really inspired by the conversation.

“We are hoping they are going home with a new appreciation for coral reefs and that there are things kids can do to help them in the future,” she said.

This was the first year in the 10 years the camp has been offered that two weeks were added to the schedule. Biery said they had such a high demand they decided to break the weeks into two age groups, 11 and 12 and 13 to 15 year olds.

The camp has 32 slots, which were full for the second week.

“It was fun because everyone was with you. You got to see the stars at night and look out over the water and see anything. It was an amazing time. It’s a beautiful place,” Marcom said