Lobsters and octopi and sharks, oh my! Last week, campers from Sanibel Sea School boarded a bus with dive gear in hand, and headed south to the Florida Keys for the adventure of a lifetime! We waved goodbye to Sanibel and began our adventure to the keys. The wheels came to a halt on Marathon, an island just twenty minutes shy of our final destination. Here, we were lucky enough to be able to take a tour of the Turtle Hospital! The Turtle Hospital has been up and running on the island of Marathon since 1986, and has helped over a thousand sea turtles. After we met their current patients and took a tour of their facility, we breezed through the last leg of the trip and settled on Big Pine Key.
Once on the island, campers broke into groups and pitched their waterfront tents. It took us a few hours to settle into our new homes for the week – the wind was so strong we had to rebuild certain aspects of our tents to keep ourselves grounded! We all reconvened for dinner and went to bed early to prepare ourselves for the first snorkel trip of the week. Drenched in bug-spray and draped in bug nets we headed for our tents, for Coral Reef Week is infamous for leaving campers with hundreds of bug bites. However, we were pleasantly surprised to find that the winds had vanquished the bugs for the night and we slept in peace.
Five miles off the coast of Big Pine Key lies a spur-and-groove reef called Looe Key. Looe Key is an underwater national park and serves as a home to thousands of species of coral and fish! Here we swam with giant tarpon, oohed and ahhed at beautiful angelfish, and trailed looming reef sharks. Under the water, you can hear the pecking of parrotfish munching on corals and can feel sergeant majors nipping at your fins! Because a long boat trip is required to reach the key, this year we were held back from snorkeling there every day due to the heavy winds.
Since free diving at Looe every day was not possible, we found snorkel locations right off our campsite that were up-to-par with all our expectations! The bridge that connects Big Pine Key to Spanish Harbor Key served as an excellent dive location. We found gadgets and gizmos of plenty, bottles and conchs and more! Deer Cowries? We found more than twenty! Campers heaved their new-found treasures to shore with them, showing them off and sharing their experiences at every opportunity. By the end of the day, everyone’s fingers were pruned and bags were filled with seashells.
When campers weren’t out having face-to-face experiences with the fishes, they were busy experimenting in our campground embryology lab. With a bit of help, campers were able to grow sea urchins into their late gastrulation stage! We also dissected red algae and were surprised to discover how much life was hidden inside. Campers found mantis shrimp, brittle stars, decorator crabs, and even a rare sea spider. We learned how sponges filter water by injecting them with a red dye and watching it exit in neon green!
Once campers completed their daily lab and returned from snorkeling, they were free to discover the secrets of Big Pine Key! We took long mud walks, explored tide pools, and hiked through nature trails. However, many would argue that the best part of Coral Reef Week is a little animal that can be found roaming Big Pine Key, the Key Deer! Key Deer are an endangered species of miniature deer, no more than two feet tall, that can only be found on certain islands in the keys. They are known to follow campers around and occasionally (okay, frequently) attempt to steal food!
Campers also participated in our annual Tent Cup. The Tent Cup consists of different competitions and tasks that give each tent a chance to earn points. This year, tents competed in an alternative dance off, a fashion show, and a trash pick up!
By the end of the week, the campers had formed friendships that they will carry with them forever. They created memories of campfires with music and s’mores, and memories of rainbow-colored reefs and ocean adventures. It’s a melancholy feeling to arrive back home on Sanibel, because nothing can compare to the fun shared on Big Pine Key.
For some campers, including myself, this year marked our fifth and final year being able to camp out on Big Pine Key with Sanibel Sea School. I can honestly say that the best part of Coral Reef Week isn’t snorkeling over the reef or sleeping in tents on the beach, it is the people you meet. I have attended Coral Reef Week since I was eleven and have been so lucky to spend it with the same people every year. The “Shrimpy Guppies” came together in 2011 and have graduated in 2015 as the “TeePee Women”.
We’ve gained experience and maturity, we’ve watched each other blossom, and we have stuck with each other through thick and thin. Even once the week is over and we all head our separate ways, we share a special bond. Coral Reef Week doesn’t only form friendships, it forms sisterhoods and brotherhoods unlike any I have ever known.
TeePee Women, I am proud to call you all my sisters. For those younger campers, love the camp while you can. Bond over your underwater experiences, and keep in contact with your Coral Reef Week friends, for they will be with you for years to come!
A big thank you to the Roudebush family for cooking outstanding campground meals and sharing sea urchin embryology expertise, and to Island Pizza for providing delicious sustenance upon our return. Sanibel Sea School is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to improve the ocean’s future, one person at a time. Learn more at www.sanibelseaschool.org.