As the yellow bus rolled into the boat launch area at Bayport Park, a cool wind blew off the Gulf of Mexico, making it a little breezy, but all in all a good day for estuary exploration.
The bus was followed by two trucks pulling trailers loaded with kayaks. Soon, sixth-grade science teacher Charles Barrett was hustling his students from J.D. Floyd K-8 School to get paddles and life vests and head to the kayaks.
Barrett divided the students into two groups — girls and boys — and assigned one group, the boys, to stay behind, explore the park and have lunch with sixth-grade science teacher Tanya Goodwin.
Barrett took the girls, along with retired teacher Jamie Ready, who was volunteering for the day, onto the water. The groups would later switch.
J.D. Floyd is a school with an emphasis on environmental science, and what better way to examine the environment than to be right in the midst of it? Barrett takes sixth-grade groups out four times a year, with about 34 students each time.
They go to different locations to see various habitats. The fall trip usually begins at Buccaneer Bay on the Weeki Wachee River — "where the aquifer meets the surface," Barrett said.
They travel about 3 miles, "so we're in fresh water," he said.
In January, he likes to begin at the Springs Coast Environmental Education Center on the Weeki Wachee River and move toward Rogers Park, where the water begins to become brackish.
"They get exposure to the entire Weeki Wachee River," said Barrett, who has open-water kayak certification.
This most recent trip exposed students to the estuary, and there is one more excursion planned for to the gulf.
The school has its own kayaks. Barrett, eighth-grade teacher Aaron Blazek, seventh-grade teacher Linda Johnson, guidance counselor Sid Jackson and Ready are all certified lifeguards with CPR and first aid certification.
"We're kind of self-contained," Barrett said.
Different grade levels focus on different things when they have their turns in the water. Sixth-graders are given a beginner's exposure to the aquatic environment. Seventh-graders spend more time looking at the geology, while eighth-graders concentrate more on the chemistry of the waters.
"We're teaching ecology (and) environmental science," Barrett said. "Science is not just about a white lab coat and doing experiments."
Sixth-grader Dylan Hodge, 12, was at the most recent trip with classmates Brandan Hopkins, 12, and Thomas Almeida, 12.
Dylan said his teachers take them on the field trips "so we can get out of school once in a while and have fun and learn about the environment. We've learned about the biomes (and) all the ecosystems. I like to be on the water. You get to see some fish, manatees and water moccasins."
Said Brandan: "We're going to learn more with hands-on experience of our environments and habitats that we live near."
Dylan recalled seeing a bald eagle's nest on a previous trip.
Said Thomas: "I've learned how habitats are — how animals like the birds and manatees help us. The manatees help us with the algae."
Simply put, he said, he likes the kayaking for "just going outside, hanging out with friends and learning."