Shark Week at the Sea Adventures Marine Camp in Southold is not a screen-mediated exploration of nature. Like every other experience at the camp, it’s hands-on, and that means you may touch the shark.
If you dare.
At the Camp, operated by the Cornell University Cooperative, kids ages 6 to 12 not only observe actual sharks, they dissect sharks (a small, local species acquired through the Center’s fisheries team) in an effort to understand the biology and anatomy of this important and misunderstood creature.
Shark Week is the most popular of several themed weeks that make up the season of day camping that starts July 10 and goes until August 18, but Marine Mammals Week is close behind. That week seals, whales, and dolphins take center stage, and when a kid wonders about that thing in the classroom that looks like the propeller of a ferry, well, it’s a whale vertebrae.
Now in its fourth year, Sea Adventures Marine Camp operates out of a building located on a wide, pebbly, and pristine beach overlooking Shelter Island Sound and adjacent to the salt marsh of Cedar Beach Creek. The building is drab and utilitarian on the outside, but inside, thanks to a renovation this winter, it’s an exciting stage for educating the public, and especially children, on the importance and wonder of the marine life all around us on the East End. 30 campers each week are guaranteed to get wet, whether they are indoors or out.
In addition to studying marine life and learning first-hand what marine scientists do, the campers get their hands dirty with habitat restoration; growing spartina, a marsh grass, from seeds and planting it on the beaches. They also participate in eelgrass restoration by weaving shoots of eelgrass into burlap discs that are then planted underwater by divers.
The renovation of the touch tank room includes extensive storage and microscope workspace, all of which was donated by California Closets. One of the most exciting additions to the room is a virtual reality sand table, that allows kids to make rivers and oceans using actual sand that is then digitally flooded to show three-dimensional changes in sea levels, and the elevations of different environments.
Director Christine Tordahl with the newly-installed touch tanks in the renovated space for young marine science enthusiasts
The touch tank room is dominated by four vessels like enormous horse troughs. Placed in the middle of the room, these tanks will be filled with sea water right out of the bay and will be stocked with creatures from the bay and the nearby salt marsh, including whelks, common spider crabs, red beard sponges, sulphur sponges and the Northern lined seahorse.
All are local, and safe to touch. “The horseshoe crab; that’s a big favorite. When the kids see it they get really excited, and say, ‘No way, that lives out there?’” said Tordahl.
Tordahl said the camp draws children with a wide range of prior experience with marine biology, including some from the city who have never gone fishing or seining. “Some are very outdoor-geared kids who know about science, and will call out Latin species names before I can even finish my sentence,” she said.
The Center is in the middle of two distinct marine environments, a beach and a salt marsh. Campers get to go on a beach ecology hike and do beach seining that same day, allowing them to capture and observe marine life as they learn about its particular habitat. The next day, campers might go on a salt marsh hike and then cast their net in the marsh. Tordahl described that teachable moment, “Although you can see the salt marsh from the bay, campers observe very different animals in those two habitats. They learn that a salt marsh is like a nursery for animals.”
One of the educators, Rachel Neville, is applying her artistic talent to a large mural in the newly renovated classroom. She is painting a huge representation of the habitats and animals that surround the facility, to bring those habitats indoors and provide context, showing what the animals look like as well as where they live.
Last year the Camp invited local artist Cindy Pease Roe to show kids her marine debris sculptures, and help them make their own creations. Tordahl described the assignment that came out of Roe’s visit as “Go for a hike, remove the garbage that collected on the beach, and make whales.”
Tordahl’s formula for the Sea Adventures Marine Camp, experience is, “A little bit of art, the science we do here, and a whole lot of fun.”