Sanibel Sea School’s Coral Reef Week was an ambitious mix of tent camping, marine marvels, rain and a big contribution to the blood-sucking insect population of Big Pine Key. All for the love of the ocean. But campers returned happy from three nights of camping at the Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge Campground – our base camp for coral reef adventures.
On the first day of our trip, we took a bumpy boat trip to the Gulfstream, which is currently about five nautical miles south of Looe Key. Some of us had the opportunity to experience seasickness for the first time, but we all got to observe the deep blue color of the Gulf Stream – then we dove in and realized how clear it actually is! We practiced our free diving skills as we stared at the shafts of light as they disappeared into the abyss, overcame our fears, and floated on among clumps of Sargassum, a type of floating algae that is a hallmark of the Gulf Stream. It is a pretty big feat to snorkel in water over 300 feet deep – some of us were treated to a glimpse of a mako sharking cruising below us.
Our ultimate destination was Looe Key Reef. If you’ve never been diving at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary in the Florida Keys, you’ve deprived yourself of one of the great American outdoor experiences. Like a big outstretched hand, Looe has the classic spur and groove reef structure. Sanibel Sea School campers swimming over the coral outcroppings spotted a Goliath grouper, barracudas, several sharks, and thousands of reef fish. We also examined the tiny zooxanthellae that produce nutrients for coral in return for protection and access to light. The zooxanthellae are responsible for coral’s bright colors. Back at base camp, we found hogfish, stingrays, and a batfish in the seagrass. And what would a campout be for 12-year old boys without a rousing game of contact-tag football before dinner.
Thursday began with a talk from Joy Tatgenhorst, a marine educator from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. She taught us about Marine Protected Areas and coral reef ecosystems. Afterwards, we hopped on the boat for another trip to the Gulfstream. There, we snorkeled with a large school of mahi-mahi, jellyfish, and a beautiful tripletail hanging out under a floating cooler lid, the only visible structure out there where no land was in sight. How many of you have ever snorkeled in the pelagic zone – where most inhabitants will never see the bottom? It was a big experience for most of us. Nearer shore, we snorkeled the patch reefs of Bahia Honda State Park to explore coral heads and communities of sea fans. We saw many sea biscuits and lobsters, and campers collected beautiful old glass bottles from the sea floor. Some of us followed a school of seven Caribbean reef squid as they lead us through their environment – it was hard to tell who was leading and who was following at times.
After dinner, we built campfires and roasted s’mores. Some of us braved the dark waters for a night snorkel, equipped with glow sticks and dive lights. The ocean floor was teeming with lobsters and crabs, and we saw squid, shrimp, and starfish among other evening foragers. The campfire and s’mores were a great way for the chilly night snorkelers to warm up before bed.
It just might have been the best week ever at Sanibel Sea School. There is something about being totally independent, camping on the edge of the ocean – preparing 120 meals a day, dodging rainstorms and evading bugs you can’t see. No electricity, no phones, and no desire for either. These are the memories of growing up in Florida that will be cherished decades from now – the old school way – the Sanibel way.
We would like to thank the many donors who helped defray the costs of this trip, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Big Pine Key Fishing Lodge and Bailey’s General Store for helping us with ice and fuel for the stoves. Dan Wexler and Bert Fendelman were brave (and tenacious) enough to tag along and help us with all aspects of this great discovery expedition – I hope you guys have caught up on your sleep by now, thanks.