Sink or Swim

“How are you feeling, ‘A’?” Her eyes are wide behind the snorkel mask, and she is breathing heavily around the tube. I curse to myself. Where is the extra pool noodle? We are probably fifty yards or so from shore. One of the camp directors had warned me that she was concerned with A’s abilities in the water after the swim test: technically, she had passed; a fair bit of thrashing, of feet searching for the shallow’s sandy floor; but she made it to and from the shore on her own. It was enough. My coworker—hi Lauren! —is up ahead, showing the other girl in our group something below the surface; the water here is around ten feet deep. Too deep for standing. I look to A. She’s stopped swimming forward and is splashing a little as she treads water, fumbling with the rubber strap of her mask. “A, how’s it going? Is there something wrong with your mask?” She glances at me and spits out the mouthpiece; she breathes the words out fast.

“Water keeps getting in.” She flaps her arms, fighting to pile the water beneath her; her head is well above the surface, but, when her voice cracks, my gut sinks.

“That’s okay! Do you want me to tighten it?” I look ahead for Lauren; she and the other campers and staffers have moved further, still. A shakes her head quickly, and begins to gasp. “A. Do you want to keep going?” I can’t tell if it’s a nod or a refusal. “Okay. We’re going to go back to shore.” A is thirteen and built on the slighter side, but when she flaps her arms at her sides, it’s strong. “A, look at me. Look at me.” She lets out a moan, but stops splashing. “We are going back to the beach, okay? You’re doing great. And we’re going back.” She reaches out for my arm. Warning bells go off in my mind, but she clutches my shoulder and I slowly tow her away from the reef. Her hands are trembling, but her kicks, if not jerky, are strong. “Okay, A. You’re doing great. Can you swim a little for me?” She lets go—I exhale—and we paddle to the beach.


Photo courtesy of VIERS.

The group had been out in Little Lameshur Bay, exploring the rocky reef for indicator species; or species that—as they had learned earlier that morning—perform certain ecological roles whose presence indicates the relative health of their home reef. Parrot fish, grunts, long-spined sea urchins, banded coral shrimp, pencil urchins, West Indian sea eggs. The campers were getting to know the lot of them, and what role each plays in the coral reefs around the island. We were finally into Science Camp! And the campers were going to take the experience from these exploration snorkels and actually do some field research of their own. The plan was for the kids to conduct a reef check, or to evaluate the health of rocky reef within four twenty-five meter transects. Should the check be a success, then the data points the campers collected would be submitted to the Reef Check organization for the Lameshur area.

I must admit, when I was first informed of the camp design—in introducing the campers and getting them to actively participate in and contribute to a scientific research project—I had my doubts. How would they approach it, and what would they honestly take away? Personally, I did not really get interested and invested in science until college. Up until that point, “science” meant lab sheets like checklists, dragged-out hours in a—more often than not—dim room (so many pipettes!), and a mounting frustration because whatever it was we were trying to do didn’t make sense and never seemed to work. When doing labs and experiments for classes, up through high school and partway through college, I never quite understood why I was there. What might I expect, then, from an antsy group of thirteen year-olds, many of whom were probably put in camp by their parents?


VIERS summer volunteers. Photo courtesy of VIERS.
VIERS summer volunteers. Photo courtesy of VIERS.

There were three total snorkels during this first Science Camp—two explorations to better recognize the types of substrates and indicator species to be identified along the transect, and a third and final run-through to tally final counts. Am I saying that there are now, four days later, sixteen brand-new, passionate marine biologists out there burning up the conservation world? No. (In fact, I’m pretty sure there was at least one kid who emphatically decided that marine biology might not be for her after all.) But, whether it was in the classroom or in the water: for every moment when the campers seemed frustrated, or unfocused, in the next they would ask a question, or celebrate a new discovery, or dive a little deeper—or headfirst across a shallow, urchin-filled channel. In those moments, it becomes clear that, on the contrary; they knew why they were there. Whether it was B yelling across the bay to me that she had finally seen a spotted flamingo tongue, or C making the connection between substrate type (rock) and species density (long-spined sea urchins) when reviewing his collection results, or even A deciding to get back into the water—and making it!—to the reef: whether they were aware of the fact or not, these kids were doing science. They knew why there were there, and they were excited about it. Granted, there may be something to be said about research in the field versus in the lab; but in just four days and few total hours in the water, they felt connected and invested in the research they were doing. Perhaps, for a second, their experiment no longer felt tedious, but creative; no longer abstract, but maybe personal. The project, the reef—it became theirs in a way that perhaps they had not realized it before. And, four days later—perhaps it was.