Elbow-deep in a bucket of muck for planting sea grass, 12-year-old Virgil Willhoite was doing his bit to restore Tampa Bay's dwindling salt marshes, and loving every minute of it.
"It feels really cool. And besides, you get out of class and you still get to help the environment," said Virgil, a seventh-grader at Madeira Beach Middle School. "It makes you feel like one of the big people."
Science classes at the middle school spent Thursday separating and planting thousands of stalks of sea grass for a 16- by 16-foot makeshift nursery on the school's bayfront campus. The muck is a soupy blend of beach sand, peat moss and vermiculate that young sea grass thrives on.
Madeira Beach is the first middle school in the Tampa Bay area chosen by Tampa Baywatch to help restore the bay's endangered salt marshes. Every six months, students harvest their nursery crops and transplant them to damaged parts of the bay.
Five other schools are involved in the project _ Lakewood High in Pinellas County and Chamberlain, Tampa Technical, King and Bloomingdale high schools in Hillsborough.
Madeira Beach, which has a marine environmental theme, "is the only school in the county that's right on the water," said science teacher Dennis Reynolds. "The kids are constantly aware of what's happening on the bay."
The students get a hands-on lesson in preservation while Tampa Baywatch, a non-profit environmental group, gets some cheap, and enthusiastic, labor.
"This is a critically important project for the health and recovery of the bay," said Peter Clark, director of Tampa Baywatch. "We've lost about half of the salt marshes and mangroves over the last 100 years" due to development, shipping and pleasure boating on the bay.
Students at each of the six schools are able to replenish an acre of salt marsh every six months, Clark said. "And we need more. We're constantly looking to recruit more schools for the project." Funding is provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The students are saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars in payments to consultants, who charge 90 cents for planting each stalk, Clark said. "And the quality of the plants we get out of the schools is far, far superior to what we would get from a commercial nursery," he said. "The kids can take more time to grow them, so that they become much more healthy planting units."
Clarissa Underwood, a seventh-grader at Madeira Beach, took great care in separating each stalk and packing the roots in egg-carton-style baskets.
"If the plants aren't rooted, they won't grow," she said. "You have to watch how you fill up the baskets _ and try not to get as dirty as I am."
Marquis Gordon, a seventh-grader at Madeira Beach who says he likes to fish, didn't mind the dirty work, even though the fertilizer mixture "feels like horse manure," he said.
Marquis knows how important sea grass is to water quality and marine life. "Without this stuff, you won't have many crabs or snakes or sea clams living in the bay," he said.