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Students enjoy summer science camp in Florida Keys

Sand on our toes, beautiful sunny weather, and snorkeling in the Florida Keys. What a way to start summer vacation.
However, this wasn’t an ordinary vacation, rather a summer science camp sponsored by Horizons Unlimited for middle school students of Rowan-Salisbury Schools.
As many students celebrated school being over and summer vacation beginning, 22 middle school students gathered at Horizons Unlimited at 5:30 a.m. to begin SCCUBA, Summer Conservation Camp and Underwater Biology Adventure. This camp took the middle school students and six RSS teachers to Key Largo, Fla., to engage in experiential learning activities that included snorkeling, kayaking and a ropes course to name a few.
Campers first engaged in a ropes course where they were challenged to push their personal comfort zones and work together to solve problems. After working together as a team to complete several low-ropes challenges, campers then tackled several high ropes elements that took them more than 35 feet in the air.
For Madison Hunter, a rising eighth-grader at Erwin Middle School, the ropes course was her favorite part of the trip.
“There are so many vibrant and cool colors of fish and coral,” said Shannon Mahaffey of Erwin Middle School about Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
After learning to identify the 50 most common fish of the Florida Keys, campers snorkeled offshore at John Pennekamp State Park and took a chartered boat trip to the coral reefs of the Marine Sanctuary to snorkel and gather data.
Campers completed fish surveys as they explored the natural beauties of the coral reef. They also learned the importance of not touching any parts of the coral reef and the delicate nature of this ecosystem.
“Snorkeling above the reef was my favorite part of this adventurous and fun trip,” Mahaffey said. “I’d love to go again.”
The campers can describe blue tangs, sergeant majors, queen angelfish and many other fish species from their exploration of their natural habitat.
Mangroves, a tree many campers had previously seen only in pictures, help protect the shorelines from damaging storms, winds, waves and floods. Campers in kayaks investigated the characteristic tangled root systems that help to prevent erosion and stabilize sediment.
They witnessed another important aspect of the mangrove stands, serving as a nursery for fish and invertebrates. Many campers were startled when they saw nurse sharks swim right under their kayaks, some even feeling their kayaks rock slightly as the sharks passed so closely.
Cassiopea jellyfish, sea horses, trumpetfish and brightly colored sponges were just a few of the many animals found in nets as campers completed a marine survey of the bay, just one of the curriculum challenges SCCUBA campers investigated.
When not engaged in excursions, campers were busy with the curriculum challenges set up by chaperones at base camp, The Pelican Hotel. Challenges also included water quality testing and designing water filtration systems.
A shrimp boat excursion was a fantastic closing activity for the trip as campers were able to observe rays, puffer fish, flounder, shrimp and many different species of fish that were caught in the trawl net.
SCCUBA participants were able to touch and feel the fish before releasing them back into the water, even baby shark and butterfly rays that were bigger than some of the campers. They were even treated to all you can eat shrimp while on board the Lady Jane.
Kendall Grumbles, a rising freshman at Rowan Early College, said the camp helped to affirm that she wanted to study marine biology later in life.
“The most memorable part of SCCUBA was seeing and learning about all the aquatic life, playing with the manatee, and holding a baby Hammerhead shark,” said Abby Blume, a rising eighth-grader at Corriher-Lipe. “I loved meeting new friends. This is a trip that I will remember forever.”
Cathy Mahaffey, Shannon Mahaffey’s mother, is a strong supporter of summer camps.
“My daughter has a lot of passion for science, especially animals, so this trip was the perfect opportunity for her to explore those things in a fun, enriching way,” she said. “I hope Horizons Unlimited offers more trips like this every summer.”
After looking for a manatee every day, campers were even lucky enough to spot one right before boarding the bus to head back to Salisbury.
This was the perfect ending to a camp that explored conservation and marine biology through experiential learning in a variety of eco-adventures.

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