After their mornings on the gulf waters, the kids always come back with a vast assortment of marine life: shepherd minnows, snappers, pin fish and pipefish, not to mention crabs, snails and seahorses.
"What they all want to do is catch a shark," chuckles Nathanael Pauley, a teacher, coach and marine science camp coordinator at World of Knowledge, a Montessori school in Holiday.
Students at the camp have been getting an eight-week crash course in all things aquatic. They go fishing, swimming and snorkeling at tropical locales such as Sand Key, Honeymoon Island and Chassahowitzka Springs. Then they take their bounty of fish and other aquatic creatures back to the classroom, where they identify them before delivering them to their summertime home in school aquariums. Each child is assigned to maintain an aquarium in the back classroom.
Students use reference books to identify the fish and write about their finds. They are studying the scientific and mathematical principles of sealife on lab sheets with titles like "Am I faster than a tuna?" And they complete art projects in which they create everything from papier-mache facsimiles of their favorite fish to rocks made of sand and concrete that can be placed in their aquariums.
"I made something that looks like a Mickey!" exclaimed Sophie Gomez, 8, holding up an orange papier-mache fish that resembled a Mickey Mouse Platy.
The youngest participant at camp, Sophie also enjoyed an activity in which the kids hooked the fishing lines they planned to take to Durney Key.
"FYI," she told Pauley, "I think we're going to need more line to catch a shark."
Sophie's mother, Mary Gomez, said her daughter can't wait to get to camp each day. And there are bigger benefits.
"Her IOWA test scores were strong in science, and this is a great way to learn by doing," Gomez said.
While science-related issues are explored through camp activities — everything from fish dissection to water testing — campers are also tapping into other subject areas, Pauley said.
"Aside from science they have to use math for our lessons, and they have to read when they look things up. Sometimes they read more than they realize," said Pauley, who runs the camp with World of Knowledge teacher Jamianne Smallze. "So this prepares them for every career."
Sophie, for her part, says she'd like to become a science teacher. And 12-year-old Cami Pilat, who is the oldest kid at camp, wants to be a veterinarian.
"I like animals a lot," she said. "Here I learn to feed fish and take care of them."
Aside from feeding the fish twice a day and maintaining their tanks, the kids also worked under adult supervision to help put the lighting and filtration systems in the aquariums. Students examine the fish in their aquariums and other forms of sea life under microscopes. And they explore the answers to questions on the blackboard, such as "Are sponges plants or animals?"
"I think they are animals," said camper Jainxing Seiwa, adding, with a laugh, "Plus people use them in the shower."
In addition to all this learning, kids who attend the camp also get the adventure of a lifetime.
"Some of them have never been fishing or snorkeling before," said Pauley. "They're having fun."