Into the wild: Marco Island Academy ‘Ambassadors of the Environment’ camp

Lance Shearer

Children’s minds don’t stop learning during the summer months. The question is, what do they learn?

It could be how to hack level 13 of Grand Theft Auto or catching up on “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” It could be … well, who knows. But students at Marco Island Academy’s Ambassadors of the Environment summer camp spent several days last week learning about the amazing natural paradise that is all around Marco Island, and how each species interacts with and depends on the others.

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Jerry Miller, environmental science teacher at Marco Island Academy, took the instructional lead in the program that was designed by Dr. Richard Murphy of Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society, who established the Ambassadors program. He worked with naturalists and biologists from various organizations, along with MIA founder Jane Watt, a zoologist herself, in a program that took the students to a diverse assortment of wild environments, as well as finding nature literally in their backyards.

Divided into two separate groups, Junior Ambassadors aged 10-13 and “regular” ambassadors aged 14-18, the students kayaked through mangrove swamps, watched baby dolphins frolic with their mothers aboard the Dolphin Explorer, explored miniature reefs where micro-organisms filter seawater, toured the Big Cypress boardwalk, and for the older kids, went on a “swamp stomp” wading through a cypress swamp in the Picayune Strand. Along their odyssey, they collected samples of organisms, soil and water for closer inspection under the microscope back in the lab at MIA.

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This year marks the fifth running of the Ambassador program at (and around) MIA. Ally Hayes, who was a camper in that first session, returned to the camp as a counselor, sharing what she has learned with a new group of students. While there is serious learning going on, this is camp, and Watt said they make a point of leavening the academic component with fun activities and chances for the kids to express themselves and be kids.

The last evening of the senior program, the campers toasted s’mores over a campfire, and then “camped” for the night in a classroom at MIA. They chowed down on pizza and spent the time around sunset bobbing in the water off Tigertail Beach, soaking in the natural surroundings and helping gain an appreciation for just how special nature is, especially on the barrier island where they live or go to school. The campers watched in silence as the sun went down, and then shared their observations.

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Students said they had gained a new appreciation for their surroundings, and the beauty all around.

“People come here from all over the world for just one week, and this is our home,” said Watt. In the aftermath of the program, “you start looking at everything differently. If we want the environment to be around, we have to take care of it.”

The Ambassadors program, said Miller, is built around four core principles: everything runs on energy, there is no waste in nature, biodiversity is good, and everything is connected.

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Many of the campers were granted scholarships through the generosity of underwriters including Rene and Tish Champagne, Terry and Andrea McCreanor, the Melvin family, Jim and Karen O’Donnell, and Rob and Donna Reiley.