Campers collected several brittle starfish, above, while scouring the shoreline for marine specimens during the eco-camp.
Instead of hosting its usual groups of university researchers, each summer the V.I. Environmental Resource Station transforms into a youth camp, welcoming local children to explore its remote Lameshur Bay environment.
Sponsored by Friends of V.I. National Park, the free Eco-Camp Program at VIERS has been going strong for 11 years. This summer VIERS officials are hosting four three-day, two-night camps for children between the ages of 7 and 12.
This week the first group of campers arrived at VIERS eager to swim, collect marine specimens and roast marshmallows over camp fires.
“Swimming and free time are the best,” said Eco-Camper Ruby Cioppa. “Camp fires are fun too, especially roasting marshmallows and telling stories.”
Students also collected marine worms, called polychaetes, and studied the specimens with University of Maine Farmington professor Nancy Prentiss.
Prentiss is overseeing an on-going research project studying marine worms, or polychaetes, which exist in local water and are often ignored in favor of reefs and fish, explained Prentiss.
“These marine worms are typically under-studied, especially in VINP where many scientists are looking at coral and reefs and fish,” said Prentiss. “These polychaetes are a major part of the food chain occupying the first level. Everything from fish, lobster, crabs and other worms eat these polychaetes.”
“It has been found that over 50 percent of reef fish eat polychaete worms,” Prentiss said, whose work at Lameshur is attracting international attention.
On the first night of their arrival, Monday, July 11, Eco-Campers collected numerous polychaetes for Prentiss’ on-going study.
“It was really cool,” said Cioppa about the night-time specimen collection. “We had flashlights and buckets and collected all of these really cool things.”
The next day, campers had the chance to study their collections under microscopes at a VIERS classroom with Prentiss.
“You are so lucky to live here,” Prentiss told the campers. “There are so many fantastic worms in the water. Most people don’t know these worms are even here.”
From feather dusters to fire worms, VIERS Eco-Campers got an up close look at polychaetes as small as an eyelash and others visible with the naked eye.
In addition to studying worms, campers were also excited to go swimming and gather around the fire that night to roast marshmallows.
Friends of VINP relies on major sponsors to make the free camp program available to local children each year, explained the Friends’ development director Heath Ruhsam.
Lana Vento Charitable Trust, Disney World Cruise Lines, VI-EPSCoR, MHW Associates, Glacial Energy VI, LLC, International Capital and Management Company, Innovative, Windward Capital and Rotary Club of St. John help make Friends make the VIERS Eco-Camp Program possible, according to Ruhsam.
Friends supports the program as a way to foster the next generation of VINP stewards, explained Ruhsam.
“The summer Eco-Camp Programs are important for a number of reasons,” she said. “Often times kids do not receive as much instruction in natural science in school as we wish they did. Eco-Camps is our summer answer.”
“They offer kids a fun and educational summer experience that is free of charge,” said the Friends development director. “The younger kids are introduced to new concepts and ways of looking at the natural world, opening up their minds and encouraging them to become conservation minded citizens.”
In addition to the Eco-Camps, VIERS is also hosting two five-day, four-night camps this summer for kids between the ages of 13 and 16.
Science Camp and the Ranger-in-Training Camp both cater to older students in hopes of garnering interest in environmental careers.
“The camps for the older children offer them an opportunity to explore natural and environmental science and resource protection in a hands on atmosphere, learning and working alongside researchers and park rangers,” said Ruhsam. “Our hope is to peak their interest to further pursue education and careers in these fields, ultimately benefitting the territory and themselves. In the islands, we live in a fragile environment.”
“It is important for kids to grow up understanding just how delicate our ecosystems are, and how they can help to make a difference, now and as they grow up,” said the Friends’ development director. “The Eco-Camp Program, along with the SKIP Program (School Kids in the Park), are the cornerstones of our educational work at Friends. Through them we ensure that kids have year round environmental learning available to them.”
Both the Ranger-in-Training and Science Camps will be at VIERS July 25 through 29. Science Camp has reached its maximum capacity, but there is still space available for the Ranger-in-Training Camp. To register for the camp call VIERS at 776-6721.
Additional funding is also needed to cover the cost off all VIERS camps this summer. To donate to the program call Ruhsam at the Friends at 779-4940 or email the development director at email@example.com.