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Kids Learn Lots From Tampa Bay Watch, Estuary EDventures Summer Camp

. - Julie Busch-Branaman
. - Julie Busch-Branaman
Plankton pulls and otter trawls, outdoor lab sessions, salt marsh planting and snorkeling for scallops -- kids at Tampa Bay Watch quickly get used to being wet, muddy and, well, interested. Students come on field trips during the school year; they visit as part of a YMCA or church camp; or they enroll in one of the nine weeks of onsite TBW summer camps.  

Children visiting Tampa Bay Watch discover a vast outdoor estuary classroom, where, with the help of the education staff, college interns and volunteers, they can directly engage in solutions to the problems of reduced water quality, beach erosion, the loss of sea grass beds and the danger to marine life from debris.

Situated on the shoreline of Cunningham Key not far from the entrance to Fort De Soto Park in Tierra Verde, Tampa Bay Watch is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the marine and wetland environments of Tampa Bay.

Equally important to organizing the more than 10,000 volunteers involved annually in projects such as oyster bar restoration, scallop searches and coastal clean-ups, is the mission to deliver environmental education to thousands of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee school students each year.

"Tampa Bay Watch has two critical missions: habitat restoration and environmental education,'' says Larry Wiener, Tampa Bay Watch board member. "We teach kids the importance of the habitat to create the next generation of environmentally aware citizens." 

The Tampa Bay Watch Education Program has grown steadily under the leadership of Catherine Karns, education coordinator, who joined TBW in 2006. A Philadelphia transplant and recent graduate of Jacksonville University in environmental studies, Karns was visiting Tampa Bay on vacation when she decided to move to the region and teach. Three years later, she was offered the job at Tampa Bay Watch, and jumped at the chance.

"When I started we were doing 100 field trips and now we've more than doubled the number to 225 serving more than 4,000 kids,'' Karns says. "We start with teacher training, showing teachers how to prepare for the field trip two weeks prior with Sunshine State Standards-based marine ecology curriculum materials. Schools from the tri-county area (Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee) come for our interactive educational sessions such as squid dissection, beach seining, use of the outdoor lab and touch tank. Field trips are free, funded by SWFWMD."

Expanding Ways To Restore Tampa Bay

As popular as the field trips and restoration programs are, recently teachers have started asking Karns for service projects for their students. For example, Lynn McDaniel, a teacher at Stewart Middle Magnet School, has worked with Karns for 5 years. Her classes have assisted with restoration along the Hillsborough River. And plans are underway to expand the education program to include a Service Learning Center.

"The permits are in place and we're putting bids out now for the construction of a shaded work area where kids can do restoration projects like build oyster domes, salt march nurseries and aqua culture,"  says Peter Clark, president of Tampa Bay Watch.

Ask kids what they think about the condition of the environment, chances are you'll hear something like, "Not good," "Oil keeps spilling in the Gulf and hurting the fish," or "I heard about a big island of garbage floating in the ocean, plastic bottles and toothbrushes, stuff people throw away." At Tampa Bay Watch, kids can actually do something about the problem -- and the whole Tampa Bay region benefits.

"What is the value of restored water quality? Of shoreline stabilization? We grow and plant acres of marsh grasses which restore highly valuable habitat and provide beneficial carbon offsets, create miles of oyster habitat which improves water quality, stabilizes rapidly eroding shorelines and prevents tens of thousands of dollars in potential property damages from erosion," says board member Weiner.

Summer camp at Tampa Bay Watch is immensely educational. For example, kids learn as they build an oyster bar that an adult oyster can filter 10 gallons of water an hour. Suddenly, improving water quality makes sense in a way it never did before.

"What I like most is that everything we do (at camp) impacts the environment, like building oyster bars, examining different fish and the otter trawl,'' says Alexandra Debure, age 10.

Once the school year ends and summer campers arrive, the TBW staff expands to include high school volunteers gathering hours for their Bright Future scholarships and college interns from Eckerd College, USF and the University of Tampa.

"I love working at Tampa Bay Watch because of the atmosphere -- everyone here loves what they do and they made me feel comfortable right away,'' says Catharine Parker, environmental education intern and Eckerd College graduate from Newark, DE. "And I was able to take responsibility as soon as I was able to do something. I love the way we teach here, by experience, by doing projects."  

Adds Gabby Clemente, an environmental specialist and USF grad: "I mainly oversee the Bay Grasses in Classes program and also help out with the summer camp program; I'm absolutely ecstatic and in disbelief that I'm working in my field."

Learning To Protect Tampa Bay

The extra help from volunteers and interns is essential to providing a great camp experience for the approximately 5,500 students coming through Tampa Bay Watch summer programs.

"It's really fun, meeting new people, all the activities everyone can do together, always outdoors or on the boat," says Iris Irby, age 10.

The week-long camps are divided between day camps for kids ages 9-14 and the recently added half-day camps for children ages 7-8.  Sally Bayard and Barbe O'Steen, teachers in the gifted program at Thurgood Marshall Elementary, were instrumental in helping staff set up the Sea Monkey summer camp, making it possible to expand the summer program to younger children.

Striped burr fish, starfish, sea urchins, blue crabs, marine worms, baby spider crabs, frog fish, pinfish, spotted sea trout campers just never know what's coming up when they perform "seine catches" over sea grass beds. A seine catch is a process of laying a net on the floor of a sea grass bed, waiting a few minutes then pulling it up. During the kayaking session, the group winds through mangroves, finding small crabs scurrying along branches overhead, brown and snowy egrets fishing along the shoreline, and snook, snapper, shrimp and oysters swimming alongside their boats in the shallow waters.

"I like the summer camp at Tampa Bay Watch because it is really well run and teaches kids about protecting the marine environment in a hands on way,"  says Beth Forys, a parent from St.Petersburg.

Thanks to funds from an EPA grant, campers board the Tampa Bay Watch boat from the onsite dock each day of summer camp to venture into the bay to the best sites for snorkeling, planting sea grass, plankton pulls, otter trawls and oyster bar construction.  

"We want to show kids the world they live in so as they grow up to be voting adults, they'll be aware of the Tampa Bay estuary community --  to have snorkeled through sea grass beds and come to understand how productive they are; to learn to love it and want to protect it," says Clark.

The most recent annual report states that TBW spent $900,954 on environmental restoration projects. TBW relies on a combination of federal, state and local grants as well as contributions from individuals and corporations to meet its goals.

Elizabeth A. Leib is a freelance writer based in Temple Terrace, FL, who loves learning about all the amazing plants and animals in the Tampa Bay estuary. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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