Posted by: Doc Bruce | September 2, 2011

Tarpon Week: A study in ocean currents

Coconuts ready to be set adrift.

The very last week of the summer at Sanibel Sea School’s summer camp was Tarpon Week; what better way to celebrate a summer of fun and learning than to pay homage to the silver king?

We made beads that represented otoliths, which are the ear bones in fishes that can be used by biologists to determine the fish’s age. We canoed through the backwaters of mangrove forests in Tarpon Bay where tarpon thrive as young fish. We studied how adult tarpon spawn and how the larvae of these mighty giants are to a large degree at the mercy of the currents.

In conjunction with our exploration of larval dispersal, we asked a really interesting question: just where might the currents take tarpon eggs and larvae if they are spawned off the shores of Sanibel? To tackle this question of current movements, we decided to use coconuts to try to track water movements around Sanibel Island. We chose coconuts because they are a natural part of the flotsam of the Gulf of Mexico and we would like to avoid adding plastics to the ocean — and besides, who wouldn’t love to find a message on a coconut?

So, we gathered up 30 coconuts and painted them crazy colors like pink and orange – decidedly non-ocean-like colors. We wanted our coconuts to catch the attention of folks on distant shores to come and have a look – wouldn’t you be intrigued if you saw a pink-and-orange coconut in the shallows off the beach? We painted numbers on each one and affixed laminated tags asking the finder to call or email Sanibel Sea School when they found our wayward coconut.

Kyle Hasenfus paints up a coconut.

On Thursday at 11:15, we anchored our boat just offshore of the Sundial Resort, a favorite hunting ground for tarpon fishermen, and set our coconuts adrift. As we watched and hypothesized the end results of our currents study, the coconuts all seemed to be headed towards Captiva. We eventually weighed anchor and traveled further up island, where we enjoyed a picnic lunch and seined for near-shore fishes, always in search of those elusive tarpon larvae. We then got back in the boat and sampled the plankton with a plankton net – a fine meshed net designed to capture creatures greater than 0.3 mm in size.

Once our plankton observation was done, we headed back to our deployment point to check up on our coconut current drogues. But, we could not find a single coconut on the Gulf of Mexico – it was as though a giant wand had erased our happy little coconuts from the earth. Oh well, we will just have to wait and see if anyone finds our little friends and gives us a call.

The first message arrived at Sanibel Sea School on Friday evening! Someone had found one of our coconuts – in Naples! Our initial prediction of Captiva landings based on the observations of the drifting coconuts didn’t pan out.

Over the weekend, eighteen more were reported from kind people who found coconuts all over the beaches of Naples and even on Keewaydin Island, south of Naples. We plotted the coconut locations on a map that is posted on this website, and were amazed by the distance our little coconuts traveled.

As the coconut reports continue to trickle in, we will update our map. Maybe those last few coconuts have been whisked into the Gulf Stream and are currently en-route to Newfoundland!

Our coconut current study yielded a lot of things. One of them was that what we do here on Sanibel can have a direct impact on our neighbors on Naples – it’s funny, I never thought of Naples as the town next door, but in our ocean world it seems to be.
[mappress mapid=”1″]

Posted by: lauraearly | August 31, 2011

Our vision comes to life

A school of fish morphs around Mia's hand.

As Jacques Cousteau said, “People protect what they love,” and at Sanibel Sea School, we are working toward a better future for our ocean by helping people fall in love with it. As it turns out, it is not that hard.

Our vision, as stated on our website, is absolutely what is happening at the Sea School:

Through their experiences, students develop an intimate bond with the ocean and its inhabitants, and gain an enhanced awareness of the tightly woven fabric of our global environment. Sanibel Sea School’s programs foster a sense of wonder in regards to the marine world, leaving participants eager to learn more and enthusiastic about practicing good ocean stewardship.

It is not an impossible, or even a very difficult task to foster a love for the ocean. The ocean doesn’t need fancy signs, the latest technology, not even a fresh coat of paint–it is awe-inspiring all on its own.

Mia runs to keep pace with the school of fish.

On a recent morning expedition from our classroom at South Seas Island Resort, one of our students had a transformative experience thanks to a school of small fish. The school, probably sardines, first appeared as a mysterious dark shape in the water a little ways offshore. We ran through the “what-is-its?” in the few seconds it took to reach the beach: a tangle of seaweed, a manatee, a shark?!

We were not the least bit disappointed when we realized it was a school of fish, and we raced down the beach alongside the swift moving cloud. The thousands of small individuals seemed to move as one. They smoothly took a detour around a small hand stuck in their path, but seemed to explode for half of a second when a needle fish darted in for a quick meal. We marveled at their speed and coordination, squealed with delight when they morphed into a different shape, and were excited by an almost fear that a larger predator was just out of sight.

After we had followed the school for as far as we could and were walking back to the classroom, Mia said to me: “I don’t understand why people don’t love the ocean as much as I do.” She went on to mention the amount of trash in the ocean, oil spills, and taking too many fish out of the ocean. She was genuinely distraught about how to fix these huge problems.

I listened intently, and then prompted her with some pretty big questions, including: “How do we get people to care about the ocean?” As she thought it through, she decided that the people who allow horrible things to happen to the ocean must not know about all the amazing creatures that live in the sea. We recalled the exhilarating experience she just had with the ocean, and wondered how to get more people to feel that same connection, that same awe, that love.

Mia decided she needed to write a book to help others understand how she felt about the ocean. So, during our lunch hour, with a piece of cheese pizza in one hand and a crayon in the other, Mia wrote a book. Flip through The Sea via the video below, and take a look.

It is not going to be picked up by some large publishing company or translated into 13 different languages, but maybe it will inspire someone to fall in love with the ocean. As Mia notes, even the small things can make a difference.

As for Sanibel Sea School, we will continue to help others experience the magic, the mystery, and the excitement that the ocean holds.

Posted by: Doc Bruce | August 22, 2011

A radical, radial week

Last week was a radical, radial experience for campers at Sanibel Sea School. It was Sea Star Week and we explored the group of animals that belong to the phylum Echinodermata – the spiny-skinned animals. Common members of this group are sea stars, sea urchins, sand dollars and sea cucumbers.

Campers and counselors enjoy the Gulf!

Echinoderms are fascinating creatures for several reasons. They are the only animal phylum that contains only marine representatives – there are no freshwater or terrestrial echinoderms. As adults, they exhibit a body arrangement known as pentaradial symmetry. Their body is typically arranged in five sections radiating from a central hub, much like the spokes of a wheel. This unusual symmetry is only found in the adult life stage – as larvae, they exhibit bilateral symmetry that is typical of most other animals.

To help explore the idea of symmetry while working the right side of our brains, we designed and created a mandala. Mandalas, whose origins are in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, are ornately detailed paintings that exhibit exquisite symmetry.

Tibetian Buddhists commonly make mandalas by ‘painting’ their highly detailed images through laborious placement of different colored sands. The pinnacle of the endeavor is the ceremonial destruction of the image upon its completion. The exercise is to remind us that many of life’s treasures lie in our processes, not in our outcomes.

Sand Mandala made with radial symmetry.

All week long we participated in the creation of a sand mandala based on radial symmetry. We designed it, we planned it, we drew a template, we dyed beach sand with food coloring, and with that sand palate, we created a beautiful, radially-symmetrical mandala three feet in diameter. On Friday afternoon, we reveled in the beauty of our creation, before systematically wiping it clean in an entrancing ceremony and returning the sand back to the Gulf of Mexico.  Ultimately, we realized that the beauty of our creation was in the labor and the fellowship it engendered; the destruction of our mandala somehow set us free to move on – with great memories and a better understanding of symmetry.

The destruction of all our hard work.

But of course, this is Sanibel Sea School summer camp – we could hardly spend all our time on an art creation.  We spent hours snorkeling and seining – did you know there are a lot of tiny young seahorses out in San Carlos Bay right now? We picked up litter on the beach; we had an epic canoe paddle, followed by abandon ship drills and a long swim back to our island home. We observed sand dollar movement and behavior – they are animals, after all. We surfed on a gentle swell on the east end of Sanibel. Our surf-paddling race was close and hard-won by the Red Rastafarians team.  And, we ended it with a soulful celebration of art, symmetry, the ocean and good times with good friends.

The finale of a great mandala.

Not bad for a week at summer camp.  What a way to wrap up a summer.

Sanibel Sea School is a non-profit organization that invites you to share our vision of a world where all people value, understand and care for the ocean.  Join us at

Posted by: lauraearly | August 3, 2011

Not far off the beaten path

fiddler crab

Alex gets a closer look at a male fiddler crab.

Being on an island, we have access to several marine environments other than the sandy beaches usually associated with a subtropical vacation. We were excited to make use of one of these spots on the bay side of Captiva Island for our new course on the mangroves this past week.

The main road that runs through South Seas Island Resort is lined with mangroves on either side for much of the two-mile distance between the entrance at the south end and the northern tip of the island. It’s easy to pass them by without giving them much attention, but they actually harbor a rich ecosystem just itching to be explored.

We hopped off the trolley on the side of the road, and covered ourselves in bugspray. We crossed the road to an opening in the thick line of trees, and I set my stuff down not more than five feet from the shoulder of the road. “Where are we going?” one of the students asked, confused about why I was stopping at the side of the road.

We were greeted by the smell of rotten eggs, a result of hydrogren sulfide produced from the decaying organic matter that makes this environment so rich. As we stepped into the soft black mud, squeals of surprise erupted as the students’ feet disappeared into the mud followed by a sucking sound as they attempted to pull them out. Once we were steady on our feet, we noticed hundreds of small holes in the mud that were not the result of toes in unfamiliar territory. As we quieted and looked closer, we discovered several of little crabs scurrying across the mud, in and out of holes, dodging our curious fingers.

Exploring the "jungle gym" of red mangrove prop roots.

Surrounding the little muddy clearing, were wacky roots protruding in all directions–these were the roots of the mangroves. Closest to the road, knobby finger-like projections stuck up out of the ground. These aerial roots belong to the black mangrove and help with gas exchange in such a dense, anoxic mud. One black mangrove can have up to 10,000 of these aerial roots around its base!

Closer to the water, the prop roots of red mangroves reached out from the base, extended down from the branches, and created a tangle of structure around us. The red mangroves’ prop roots help stabilize the tree and exclude salt while still allowing the tree to drink from its salty surroundings.

A snail leaves a trail of slime as it explores an alien territory.

We discovered though, that these roots are important for many other organisms besides the tree itself. In South Florida, 90% of commercially harvested marine species depend on mangroves at some point during their life. The roots provide structure for a myriad of intertidal creatures to attach, such as oysters, barnacles, tunicates, snails, and crabs just to name a few! Mangroves also act as a nursery, providing shelter to many juvenile marine species. As we climbed over and around the prop roots, we understood why it would be a safe spot to hide from large predators.

As an institution that strongly believes in experiential education, it is always a huge reward when kids so fully experience nature as these students did. The felt the mud squish between their fingers, watched the fiddler crabs wave their oversized claws in the air, heard the call of an osprey from a nearby perch, smelled the organic aroma of decay, and even tasted the salt that creates a harsh environment for many plants. They were exploring a totally new territory, just steps from a paved road, and in the words of 10-year-old, it was the coolest thing she had ever done.

A curious group of explorers among the red mangroves.

Posted by: Doc Bruce | July 31, 2011

Omni Cellula e Cellula

What does a mid-19th century Latin phrase have to do with Manatee Week at Sanibel Sea School? Just about everything as it turns out – at least that’s how we look at things. Omni cellula e cellula translates as the origination of cells are cells – that cells come (only) from cells; it was the fundamental idea of the Cell Theory which is a tenant in studies of the cellular basis of life on this planet.

Jivan Khaki scopes out the surf before entering the (surf) battle.

So how does this relate to manatees? Manatees are consummate herbivores – the cows of the sea. To understand how they can survive on a diet of seagrass, we have to understand a little about the basic building blocks of plants – cells. We have to begin to understand how plant cells are different from animal cells and require different digestion. So to understand how manatees thrive in our rich seagrass communities, at Sanibel Sea School we learned about the cellular basis of all living things. Pretty cool stuff for a week at summer camp.

Chase Desiderio-Taub launches himself into some manatee fun.

Of course, we also wanted to understand manatee propulsion so we had monofin races.  We seined for fish, snorkeled on seagrass beds, found octopus and seahorses. We made life-sized sand sculptures of manatees; we surfed afternoon squalls, made manatee style ear bone beads from clay and used metal detectors to find buried treasures. At the end of the week, we visited Bailey’s Grocery Store to make sidewalk art and educate the public about these marine mammals that are so iconic to southwest Florida.

It's the journey, not the destination. Campers flatten a scale-sized manatee sand sculpture after its creation. Leave only footprints and take only memories.

All in all, it was a great week at Sanibel Sea School. We learned a lot about the life surrounding us on our ocean planet. We rekindled old friendships, made new ones and created memories that will last a lifetime. Not bad for a week of summer camp.

We are grateful to the many supporters of our summer programs.  These include: Bailey’s Grocery Store, the Island Cow, Big Red Q, Billy’s Bikes, R.S. Walsh Landscaping; scholarship funding is provided by the Sanibel-Captiva Kiwanis Club.

Sanibel Sea School is a Sanibel-based non-profit foundation that looks to a world where all people value, understand and care for the ocean.  Joins us in that vision at

Posted by: Doc Bruce | July 20, 2011

Dolphin Daze at Sanibel Sea School

Last week, we studied Dolphins at Sanibel Sea School’s summer camp.

Did you know that a female dolphin born under the Sanibel causeway my live for 25 years and never venture more than 15 or 20 miles from the causeway? Pretty amazing, but female Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins have perfected the art of blooming where they are planted – wouldn’t it be great if we could all do that well?

During our week of camp, we studied how dolphins use biosonar – echolocation to ‘see’ the world around them. Dolphins produce sound waves with the assistance of the melon, a fatty organ located in their forehead that is believed to help them focus the sound waves used for echolocation. The shape of the large rounded forehead of dolphins comes from the underlying melon gland. To demonstrate to ourselves how echolocation works, we had a rousing game of “echo location”, Sanibel Sea School’s rendition of Marco Polo, only where the one who is it wears a blacked-out snorkeling mask and thus cannot peek.

We also learned that dolphins have a voice apart from their echolocation. They use their voice to produce a variety of clicks and whistles through which they communicate to one another. Each dolphin has a signature voice used to distinguish individuals in their social groups – these social groups are called pods. Back in camp, we made drums from cast off large food cans and saw how each of us can create a signature ‘voice’ distinguishable from the others in the pod.

Sarah Carr leads a team on an underwater scavenger hunt.

With drums at hand, we held a drumming circle and talked about the difference between noise and music, but it was unclear whether we succeeded at the latter rather than the former.

We spent time learning to throw a cast net and gained a better appreciation for the challenges a dolphin faces to capture their daily ration of nearly 25 pounds of fish. We played cooperative hunting, frolicked in the warm Gulf waters and pretended we were dolphins while learning to surf – dolphins are perhaps the world’s best surfers.

Two campers cooperatively hunt down a counselor in a game of capture the fish.

Sanibel Marina donated fun-filled cruises on the Stars and Stripes for all our campers, where we were treated to the spectacular sights of dolphins surfing in the wake. It was a great way to have a close encounter of the dolphin kind.

We are grateful to the many people who help create life-long ocean experiences and memories at Sanibel Sea School. Bailey’s quenches our thirst with an unending supply of ice, the Island Cow provides hamburgers and hotdogs for our Friday cookouts. The Baitbox donates nets, expertise and island skills to our programs. The Community House hosts our milk and cookies on Friday where we share our week of fun with our parents and grandparents.

Sanibel Sea School is a Sanibel-based non-profit foundation; we envision a world where all people value, understand and care for the Ocean.

Please join us in that vision to the future at

Posted by: lauraearly | July 7, 2011

Conservation: A worthwhile endeavor

Environmental news and talk regarding conservation is often one tragic story after another. Headlines like “Scope of Yellowstone River oil spill may grow,” “Scientists warn of a mass extinction of marine species,”and “Megafires may change the Southwest forever,” are just a few recent examples of the tone of the media when discussing future of our planet. If you aren’t careful, it can get quite depressing and discouraging.
Let’s revisit a very familiar story– that of DDT. Rachel Carson shared with the world the dangers of DDT in her 1962 book Silent Spring, which many have attributed the birth of modern environmentalism. Here is the gist of the story: DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) is an extremely effective pesticide used to control insects that may be vectors of disease, protect crops against pests, and control invasive insects that may pose a threat to native environments. However, it was discovered to be the cause of declines in several bird populations. DDT is very persistent and will move through the food web accumulating at each step.

DDT makes its way up the food chain.

For example, once DDT is sprayed on crops rain runoff will carry it into streams that lead to rivers that lead to larger lakes and even oceans. As the DDT is consumed by smaller organisms and those organisms are consumed by larger fish, the chemical DDT becomes more and more concentrated. Animals at the top of the food chain like Ospreys and Pelicans accumulate large amounts of chemicals like DDT in their bodies for a few reasons. First, they consume more in prey than their own body weight, so the toxins that were in all the prey’s tissues are concentrated into the one predator’s body. Also, birds of prey tend to have long lifespans. Ospreys can live from 20-25 years, and Pelicans can live up to 30 years. Overtime, more and more toxins build up in the animal.

Heavy use of DDT across the country during the 1950s and 1960s coincided with Brown Pelican populations dwindling almost to extinction along with birds of prey like the Osprey, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon declines. The DDT didn’t kill the birds directly, but altered their calcium metabolism preventing them from creating eggshells thick enough to hatch successfully.

DDT was banned in 1972.

OK, so far this story sounds like it belongs with all the other depressing headlines listed above, but the most important part is what happened next. Scientists were able to connect the decline in bird populations to DDT, and with the help of public awareness raised in part by Silent Spring, we made a change. In 1972, the EPA banned the use of DDT on crops in the United States. As a result, Ospreys and Brown Pelicans, both listed as endangered species in the 1970s, are now a common sight in most coastal ecosystems, especially here on Sanibel and Captiva!

Don’t get discouraged by the “end-of-the-world” tone taken by much of the media regarding environmental issues. Yes, it is true that we are facing some huge environmental challenges right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix them.

If your morale needs a boost, read some other success stories:

Posted by: lauraearly | June 12, 2011

Coquinas on the move

As you stand at the edge of the ocean, letting your feet sink into the sand as the waves wash back and forth, your toes are not the only thing being buried and unburied by the constant motion. There are thousands of little critters that make their home just below the surface of the sand where the waves wash ashore.

Coquinas (Donax variabilis) are one of the most abundant macroinvertebrates in this zone. They live in dense colonies (up to 1,500 clams per square foot!) beneath the sand at the water’s edge. These tiny wedge-shaped clams come in almost any color and pattern imaginable, making them a favorite of beachcombers.

Colorful coquinas can be found by the handfuls this time of year.

Coquinas, also known as butterfly clams, can make a rainbow out of the wrack line, but the truly fascinating thing about these bivalves is watching them in action. Dig your hand into the wet sand right after a wave recedes, and coquinas will seem to pop out of the sand as they pull themselves back down under the cover of the sand. During the summer and into early fall, you can find live coquinas by the handfuls on sandy beaches from Virginia all the way to Texas.

Coquinas have a muscular foot that they extend from their shell to maneuver through the sand and two straw-like siphons that are used to pull seawater through their body and expel it after filtering out food particles and oxygen. Watch the video below to see these clams doing their thing. If you look closely, you can see their foot and siphons as they scoot around in our bucket.

It seems logical that these small coquinas, need to bury themselves in the sand to avoid being haphazardly tossed around in the waves, but coquinas actually use the flow of the waves to their advantage. Colonies of coquinas make daily migrations shoreward and seaward as the tides move in and out each day. As the tide rises, when a coquina senses the right incoming wave, it will “jump” out of the sand and be pushed further up the beach where it buries in the sand again. As the tide falls, the coquinas will pop out of the sand again and ride the waves out towards sea. If you look closely as the waves wash up and down the beach, you might witness some of the coquinas taking a free ride.

Posted by: lauraearly | May 12, 2011

Third graders save the manatees!

Justin (left) and Ted (right) are raising money to benefit Florida manatees.

Justin and Ted, third graders at Devon Elementary School in Devon, Pennsylvania, are taking action in the name of Florida’s charismatic sea cows. They have organized a fundraising project at their elementary school to benefit endangered manatees.

While visiting Sanibel Sea School in November, Justin learned about manatees while observing them in the wild. In February, he and his friend Ted came up with the idea to raise money to benefit these vulnerable marine mammals, and after a pitch to the school principal and a little more research, they have been given the green light!

Justin and his mom created this flyer to be posted around the school during the weeks they will be taking donations.

They will announce the fundraiser to their elementary school over the public address system on May 16th and will collect donations through May 27th. The donations they collect will go to the Save the Manatee Trust Fund to help fund research and conservation efforts in Florida.

We are so proud that a Sanibel Sea School student is taking action in their community, and we have agreed to match their donation up to $200.

You can show Justin and Ted your support by sending a donation, or just a note of encouragement to the address below. Make all checks payable to “Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission,” and in the Note field: “Save the Manatee Trust Fund.” You can also make an online donation.  Help Justin and Ted reach their ambitious goal of $500, and make a donation before May 27th!

All donations will go directly to the Save the Manatee Trust Fund, but possibly more important is just making this project a positive experience for two third graders from Pennsylvania so that they have the confidence to take on similar endeavors in the future.

Mail to: The Manatee Project, C/O Devon Elementary School, 400 Fairfield Road, Devon, PA 19333

To learn more about how the money will be used, read the Fund’s 2009-2010 Annual Report.

Posted by: lauraearly | May 5, 2011

Have we evolved to save energy?

Biking on Captiva. Photo by Helen Steussy.

Riding a bike in Sanibel and Captiva is pretty easy. It is easy for a couple of reasons: There are 25 miles of paved bike paths, and the islands are flat. All during the daylight hours, you see people happily pedaling along to the beach, to get ice cream, or to whatever the day has in store for them.

I ride a bike to work a couple of times a week. It’s not an excessive distance, only about two miles each way, but one afternoon on my way home with the wind against me, I felt incredibly out of shape. I thought to myself, “I should have just saved my energy and ridden the trolley.”

For the rest of my slow ride home, I pondered this concept. Isn’t it ironic that I was going to conserve my personal energy while partaking in something that was robbing energy from another source?

As a society, and as a species, we have evolved to minimize the amount of energy our bodies use. The process of evolution selects for traits that help an individual better survive, and therefore pass along those genes. Energy efficiency is vital to survival. For example, if an animal doesn’t have to expend as much energy breaking down its food because its larger teeth do the job more efficiently than its contemporaries’ smaller teeth, that animal may have more energy to spend on evading predators (or some other survival activity.) On the other hand, let’s say an animal develops a tool that helps break down food before it even enters the mouth, requiring even less energy. Now those smaller teeth are less energetically expensive than the larger ones, and therefore more favorable.

As a modern society, we have used technology to reduce the amount of energy we spend on everyday activities from brushing our teeth to traveling to work. However, the mechanisms that do that work doesn’t magically appear out of thin air. That energy is being harvested from somewhere else, whether its from coal mined from mountaintops, oil pulled from the depths of the earth, or nuclear reactions.

We may have gone too far in relieving our bodies of the burden of work. Not only are the practices of utilizing certain forms of energy polluting our planet and the methods of obtaining them unsafe to workers and surrounding communities, but its presence in our everyday lives is taking a toll on our health as well. Recent studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle leads to a greater risk of heart disease — the leading cause of death in Americans. Scientists are finding that even those that exercise regularly, but spend most of their time sitting (at a desk, in a car, in front of a TV, etc.) are at a higher risk for heart disease than those that are on their feet for most of the day. Check out this study conducted by researchers at University of South Carolina comparing the amount of time adult men spent watching TV and riding in a car with heart disease related deaths.

So, while we move to develop cleaner energy sources as a society, don’t forget about the energy you harbor in your own body. I will fight off my innate laziness, and ride my bike more often, and I encourage you to find ways that you can burn more of your body’s energy as well. If you are feeling really ambitious, try forgoing the riding lawnmower this summer, and instead give the reel push mower a try.

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