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Sea School campers traveled to Belize to study coral reefs

By Staff | Aug 23, 2017

Eighteen campers, as well as Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill and Director of Education Nicole Finnicum traveled to South Water Caye Marine Reserve in Belize for a week’s summer camp, Coral Reef Expedition in Belize. PHOTO PROVIDED

Eighteen campers traveled to Belize last month with the Sanibel Sea School for a Coral Reef Expedition, an experience they will carry with them for years to come.

“It’s the best week of my life,” Winston Salem, North Carolina resident Lucy Borschke, 16, said. “It was one of the best trips I have ever taken and I will always remember it.”

She now has a greater appreciation for the ocean.

The teenager said since she is thinking about majoring in marine biology, she thought the Belize trip would be an awesome opportunity to study the reefs, the second largest barrier reef in the world.

At the age of 8, Borschke began attending summer camps at the Sanibel Sea School, which quickly turned into her favorite part of the summer.

From left to right on each bench - Dan (guide), Berkeley Wetherbee, Karley King, Kristen Dunavant, Lindsey Fruhwirth, Emma Neill, Emily Roudebush, Lucy Borschke, Johnny (guide) and Omar (guide). PHOTO PROVIDED

About five years ago, Sanibel Sea School campers began asking what’s next after they aged out of Keys Coral Reef Week, a summer camp geared towards 11 to 15 year olds. The brainstorming began as Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Dr. Bruce Neill thought of other field stations they could visit.

“I took college students to Belize nearly 20 years ago to this field station on a tiny little island called South Water Caye. It was a fantastic place. Belize is a wonderful country. They speak English. They accept the American dollar. It is a very safe country,” Neill said.

Instead of initially taking the campers to Belize, the Sanibel Sea School opted to offer a camp in the Bahamas.

“We decided last year for a variety of reasons, why don’t we investigate Belize,” Neill said, adding that the trip was added to this summer’s lineup, July 29, through Aug. 5. “It sold out more quickly than our Bahamas trip.”

The decision to change the destination turned out to be “a much better trip.”


“You get off the airplane in Belize City, Belize and you realize I am in a different country. The very first thing that happens is you go down one of those old fashion steps, those steps that roll off the side of the plane,” Neill said.

After departing the airplane, they went for a three and a half hour bus ride without air conditioning from Belize City to the southern town of Dangriga. From there they took an hour boat ride to an 8 acre island, the field station at South Water Caye.

Once they arrived, they quickly saw just how close to the coral reef they were.

“Our quarters, the ocean went under it. It was built on land, but the front porch had the ocean under it,” he said.

The close proximity provided them with the opportunity to go snorkeling from the shore, as well as from boat. Every day the group of 20 made their way to the water – two or three times a day – which also included the campers socializing in the water off the docks.

Sanibel Sea School Director of Education Nicole Finnicum. PHOTO PROVIDED

“Some of our people are very good in the water. This group of kids we’ve had in the water since they were 5, some of them,” Neill said. “They are extremely comfortable in the water and very skilled at being in the water.”

Borschke said the highlight of the trip was snorkeling everyday and seeing the reef.

“I’ve never been snorkeling outside of Florida before. It was so overwhelming to see everything. It was so amazing,” she said. “It was kind of the reefs here, but on steroids. So much more colorful. So many different creatures on our first snorkel. We went out for an hour, right outside of the plaice we stayed. It was so beautiful.”

One of the memorable trips was the night snorkel. Borschke said they saw an octopus that turned colors when it went over the different coral.

Before leaving the Atlanta airport, the campers chose their buddy for the week, a safety precaution the Sanibel Sea School practices with every snorkel.


“I knew the person beforehand, but throughout the trip I became friends with other people and hung out with different people,” Borschke said, which she still keeps in touch with. “The friendships that I made . . . I got so much closer to other people. It was really awesome.”

There were a plethora of opportunities while in Belize, many of which were educational.

The campers visited Carrie Bow Caye, which was home to a Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. They heard a lecture from a researcher from Texas who was studying the effects of climate change to coral reefs.

“We also had researchers from Boston University sharing our field station with us. We got to really expose kids to different research, which is really valuable for high school students, so they can really see it in action,” Neill said.

Every day the campers, as well as Neill and Sanibel Sea School Director of Education Nicole Finnicum, gathered at one large table.

All 20 participated in a daily assignment – the species of the day. Everyone was tasked to look up some creature, learn its scientific name, as well as provide a two-minute presentation of what they learned. Many of them chose a species they had encountered while diving.

“We had 20 of those, so in six days we had 120 different species,” Neill said.

Another assignment was taking on their own research regarding the soldier hermit crab. Some of the projects were about food choice, where they can be seen, relaying the size of the track to the size of the animal and the species of shell they use.

“What we want to teach the kids is a large portion of scientific research lies in the ability to ask a really good question,” Neill said. “They had four nights to do their research. They really enjoyed that.”

The campers also had to memorize one scientific name, spell it, announce it and present the species.

“I believe they will keep that scientific name with them for the rest of their life,” he said.

Borschke said she learned so much while in Belize.

“It was a really good learning opportunity and fun too,” she said.

Longtime supporter of the Sanibel Sea School, Carolyn Clark said when they heard about the Belize trip, she thought of her grandchildren.

“Theo (Kammerer) is 15. He attended Sea School one summer here with three of his cousins. I believe he was about six, or seven. The kids had a wonderful time. They were here for a week at the house and went to the Sea School for the day,” Clark said.

The Belize trip sparked her interest because it was geared towards 15 to 17 year olds, which was the “sweet spot” for four of her grandchildren.

“We actually offered the trip to all four of the cousins. As it turned out Theo was the only one that was able to go that particular week,” Clark said. “Theo said he wanted to do it. He flew in from New York and had a wonderful week with Bruce and then we had him visiting three days after the trip.”

Once Kammerer returned to Sanibel, she said he shared that the trip exceeded all of his high expectations.

“We too were pleased with his response. He was really glad he had gone by himself,” Clark said. “I think that added to whatever enjoyment he had. I think he thought the group gelled so well because they were all there as independent people.”

One of the things that stuck out during the trip, was Emma Neill taking care of Kammerer’s foot, which had a cut from one of the coral reefs.

“Emma was his first aid attendant and did a remarkable job on his injury,” Clark said. “She tended to it for several days. She had really seemed to know what to do. We were really happy about that.”

Neill said some of their Senior Counselor in Trainings, who are life guard and first aid certified, were on the trip. When one of the kids received first aid, they shared it with Neill, or Finnicum, so they knew what happened.

Before arriving in Belize, at the Atlanta airport, Neill took away all of the campers cell phones.

“We all introduced ourselves and then I said text your parents that you are safe in Atlanta and they will hear from us later that afternoon,” he said, adding that the parents knew of the plan beforehand.

“I was looking forward to it,” Borschke said of unplugging from her phone. “I just thought it was going to be really refreshing to get off of social media and get to know people.”

Neill and Finnicum had WiFi, enabling them to email parents and post to social media.

“Nicole sent a very lengthy email out every evening describing the activities of the day, so parents could know what was going on,” Clark said. “That was really nice. We all looked forward to those emails every night. I know his mother really appreciated it.”

She thought the idea of turning their phones in was wonderful because they were not plugged to their devices, but rather became connected to the others that attended the camp.

Neill said the disconnect with technology turned into playing Monopoly, card games and many organic games.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the best part of their trip was the community that they had formed. We saw amazing things in the water. One of the things we saw was these giant sting rays called spotted eagle rays. They swim with you in reefs. They are gorgeous and graceful. We saw a lot of big tarpon, octopuses at night, squid and just a million different things. We had kids from Sanibel, Fort Myers, Orlando, South Carolina, Atlanta, Colorado, North Carolina, Connecticut, New York . . . a lot of different places and a lot of the kids didn’t know each other. They fractured off and there would be three, or four kids doing this, and three, or four doing this. Interestingly, the next night the three, or four would be the same, but different people making up the three, or four.”

In addition to learning about the coral reef, Neill said they also had the opportunity to experience the culture. All of the food they ate was made on site. Tortillas were made from scratch and the fish was speared off the reef in the morning.

“There’s an enormous amount of value in that,” he said. “It’s a great cultural experience.”

Borschke said a perk of staying at the island was getting to know the workers, who were around her age.

“They were telling us about living in Belize,” she said.

With the great experience that was had, Neill said they are looking at offering the trip to Belize for two, single week sessions next summer. He said they are also toying with the idea of offering a two week session.

“Then you really hit your stride. If you were there for two weeks you have to create for yourself the structure and the systems to support yourself,” he said. “I would love for us to develop, overtime, some longer term.”

In addition, Neill said he also wants to look into offering an adult program on the little island in Belize.