Every year my school takes the fifth graders go on a much anticipated Manatee fieldstudy. Last year I went with Big Al, this year I went with my class. WAY easier to go as the teacher - I didn't have to keep up with wet clothes and dry clothes for 3 little girls. We definitely put in work before by preparing this thing, but it is SO WORTH IT. Our first science unit of the year is landforms and oceans, and then we move into our second unit which is ecosystems.
Sorry about the flash in this one - window glare
Thursday the kids were all at school at 5:45 AM - early, but its a 7 hour-ish ride to Florida. On the way down, I kept pointing out marshes, and other ecosystems along the way - I'm sure they were listening, and their iPods and DS games were not being played. When we get down there we drove STRAIGHT to Homasassa Wildlife refuge. These folks take care of lots of animals that are found injured in the wild, or kept by idiots, or retired from movies. At the headwaters of a river they have put bars under a bridge to keep the injured manatee in, and the healthy ones out - but the bars are wide enough for the other creatures in the ecosystem (see how that sneaks in) can come and go on the river as they please. My students went to the underwater observatory in the river, and saw HUGE schools of fish and their first sighting of the manatee. They were THRILLED - and worried, because we were going to put them in the water with those things. We went to a Manatee presentation where a lady explained about the manatee rescue, and fed them. She climbed into the water with them, which was great because it showed the kids they were actually quite gentle animals. They asked a lot of fantastic questions, and were absolute EXEMPLARY in their behavior.
After Homasassa we then go to the hotel in a nearby town and drop our bags in our rooms. Then high tail it down to receive our borrowed wet suits. The water is always between 72 - and 74 degrees, so we need them to keep warm. We then get a gourmet meal of grilled hotdogs and potato salad, but we don't care because there are also ice cream stores and lots of junk food to eat in the rooms that our students have been so lovely as to bring. The rest of the evening is up to the chaperones, but GET THIS - we started a bed check at 8:30, and half of the rooms were already in bed and NO ONE was wandering the halls.
Now the good part. On Friday we got up at 6:30 a.m. to get a breakfast biscuit and OJ, and then don our "only time dry" wet suits and head for the boats at 7:15. We get "camel spit" in our goggles to keep them from fogging, and shiver and chatter our way out to the Manatee sanctuaries. It was so cold this time (felt good getting into the water) and it was SO FOGGY. "Kelly," I hear you ask, "Why must you go in January when it is actually 39 degrees this week in Florida." "Well," I answer,"The Manatee only come in from the ocean during the winter to the warmer (72 degree) water to survive." The sanctuaries are about a 15 minute ride (past GORGEOUS HOUSES - one of which is rumored to being currently built by J*hn Tra***ta). The manatee are endangered, so the state wildlife people have set up bouys with ropes and PVC pipe that they may swim into to avoid people, but people are allowed to snorkel just outside of them. They come out to visit though because they are incredibly curious. You may swim quietly and touch with one hand if they are not sleeping on the bottom - obviously you can't chase them, or swim into the sanctuary, or feed them. Because of the cold air temperatures lately in the south, the manatee were everywhere. The problem was, that not all of our students were keen on getting in the water. The first encounter is unnerving for some. You have to get used to a wetsuit, snorkel breathing, flipping your fins, and then the fact that these 1000 pound creatures are interested in you too can overwhelm those that haven't done it before. First we get the strong, gung-ho, swimmers off the boat. Then we convince the others to get in the water. Now, I sacrificed my manatee time the first encounter to try to get as many kids in the water as I could, because lets face it, they didn't know the crew, the crew (about 6 of them) didn't know how to talk to my kids, and their parents paid some serious cash in the current economy for their child to have an amazing adventure. I managed to convince two that they could do it (the crew worked with the others). All but one got in for more than a few minutes. The cool thing about the wetsuit is that you don't have to work to float in them, so there is really only mental blocks to overcome - swimming skills are preferred, but non swimmers aren't exempt if they have courage. I must confess that I lied...um .... exaggerated many times that morning because the kids I was trying to help wanted to swim but not deal with the big mammal thing. I kept telling them they weren't around us they were "over there" in some vague spot. They believed, but I need to confess none-the-less ('cause I saw snouts coming out of the water for air). We were out there for about 2 hours, and had a great time. On the way in the fog had lifted and we saw a lot of wildlife. We did learn that this area was once fairly clear water, but due to the fertilizer run-off from lawns, the algae likes to bloom and now the water is green and murky.
I'll post more tomorrow.