First Junior Ocean Explorers Graduate

Analia Brown, 10, holds a brittle starfish during the Junior Ocean Explorers program. (Source photo by sap)
Analia Brown, 10, holds a brittle starfish during the Junior Ocean Explorers program. (Source photo by sap)

It was a short week from their first foray into the shallow, warm waters of the Brewer’s Bay undersea nursery to a “graduation” ceremony five days later, but it was packed with information and new experiences for 20 youngsters aged 9 to 11.

Inviting Ocean Explorers in this age group was an experiment. Begun as the Youth Ocean Explorers in 2016 for students interested in science in grades 7 through 12, this was the inaugural year for kids still in elementary school.

Though most of these first-time Junior Ocean Explorers had never seen a brittle starfish or sea urchin up close and personal, curiosity overcame trepidation as the students from several local elementary schools shuffled without hesitation into the knee-deep water Monday morning to collect specimens for observation.

The youngsters were accompanied by a bevy of camp counselors, most of whom are graduates of the Youth Ocean Explorers.

One of the marine invertebrates that captured the attention of Kenji Nieves, 9, was a scorpion fish.

“We drew it,” Kenji said.

For 10-year-old Shi’Nai Ferguson, it was a particular kind of sea urchin that captured her attention. “I had never seen one up close before,” she said.

Another camper’s attention was captured by the cycle of life right off the bat. As he and other students were observing the specimens captured for their review before they arrived for their first day he exclaimed, “Oh look, that crab just ate the other crab!”

“I did not expect that to happen,” said program coordinator Jervon Stout.

No one in the group of children peering into the small glass aquariums seemed distressed by the natural occurrence as they moved on to their next activity.

After Friday’s graduation ceremony, Stout said the big difference between the junior explorers when compared to the older group was Stout, “They ask way more questions.”

“Their minds are more malleable. You can see when something sparks their interest,” he said of the younger campers.

Students peer into pre-loaded aquariums. (Source photo by sap)
Students peer into pre-loaded aquariums. (Source photo by sap)

The two things that Stout said piqued the greatest interest were Wednesday’s algae investigation and Thursday’s beach clean up.

“We picked up 75 pounds of garbage,” said Howard Forbes Jr., community outreach coordinator for the University of the Virgin Islands’ V.I. Marine Advisory Service.

That is a shocking figure when you consider the most recent beach clean-up had occurred one week earlier, on June 18.

The algae experiment created its own “mess” Stout said, as the students shredded the algae that had been collected by the camp counselors from the shoreline in search of minuscule invertebrates and fishes hidden within it.

“They didn’t want to stop,” Stout said. “It was wonderful to see how intent they were on finding the little critters.”

As for the beach clean-up, nine-year-old Jordan Julian said to see all that garbage made him mad.

“I wondered how people could do that,” he said, adding, “Do they believe in God?”

These youngsters are Forbes’ great hope, even though it is sometimes hard to immediately see the program’s impact.

“But then we hear from the parents later.” They call and let Forbes know what they are learning from their kids. One mother called after last year’s program to say her son had taught her about single-use plastic.

Will the program continue? It’s hard to say. The MacLean Marine Science Center building is about to be leveled and rebuilt due to the damages from the two 2017 hurricanes.

“This area is crucial to the program and it will be a construction zone for a while,” Forbes said, shrugging.

But, he said, “Doing a program with kids this age reinforces the need to get them when they are young.”

It is clear though when you listen to them talk about the children they are mentoring – Stout and Forbes will not be stopped by a little demolition.

“We’ll figure something out,” Stout said.

VIMAS originally hosted a week-long summer camp called Coral Reef Discovery Week. The response was so overwhelming, that Forbes, an intern at the time, saw that a longer, more in-depth program was needed.

The Ocean Explorers program has several dedicated sponsors, he said, including: Tropical Shipping – Saltchuk, The Lana Vento Charitable Trust, Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands, The Prior Family Foundation, The Virgin Islands Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (VI-EPSCoR), The Virgin Islands Marine Rebuild Fund, and The National Science Foundation – INCLUDES Program.

Even with that, fees associated with the programs can be beyond the reach of some families.

“We can always use more sponsors,” Forbes said.