Remember Eastern Airlines? I do. And I’m forever grateful to the long-gone carrier for transporting me to a new world exactly 35 years ago, a world that I’ve never left. On June 24, 1974, I boarded Eastern Airlines flight 35 in Philadelphia, sat myself in seat 12A, a window of course. Scheduled departure was 900am. The Boeing 727 rumbled down the runway, and two and half magical hours later, a 15-year-old teenager from Philly found himself in Miami, Florida, eager with anticipation of catching his first glimpse of the Florida Keys, wherever they were. I didn’t know. Someone had to draw a map for me on a napkin.
The destination was Seacamp, a marine science camp on Big Pine Key, the largest of the Lower Keys, roughly 35 miles east of Key West. As the chartered bus headed south over the old, narrow Overseas Highway, I marveled at the turquoise waters below me. I also marveled at the bus driver’s ability to keep us alive along the narrow pavement laid down upon the trestles where the Flagler Railroad once ran, long destroyed by a terrible hurricane. The railroad track now made up the guard rails.
Founded in 1966, Seacamp was among the first marine science camps and my 15-year-old, Philadelphia-raised perspective was about to change permanently. For my 15th birthday, my parents obliged my obsession with the TV series, “Sea Hunt” (starring Lloyd Bridges) and granted me my wish: SCUBA lessons. Thanks to an ad in “Boy’s Life” magazine, I found Seacamp, and in a day or so would find myself entering that world I’ve never really left since. Nearly 40 feet below the surface, I was sitting in white sands in those warm, turquoise waters, six miles due south of Big Pine Key at Looe Key, now a National Marine Sanctuary, curious angelfish eyeing me and drifting across the reef.
So powerful were the experiences I would have in those few weeks that I returned for three summers as a camper, followed by eight summers as an instructor, and I’ve never lost touch for long with the camp’s leaders, Irene Hooper and Grace Upshaw, who are still changing lives there today. I knew before the end of that incredible summer in 1974 that I had found a cause worth dedicating myself to. The oceans were incredibly beautiful, tantalizingly mysterious, but to my amazement — even back then — in grave peril. Like so many others, I thought the oceans to be too vast and limitless, and to my eye, appeared so pristine that it was hard to imagine that we were already taking too many creatures from the sea and dumping too much of our waste into it.
My treasured memories of Seacamp would fill a volume, but a few came to mind this morning as I realized that it was June 24, the first day of camp for more than a hundred new campers, settling into their new bunks for the next two and half weeks. I remember being first to the bottom on a deep dive to 125 feet and finding a collosal sea turtle asleep just inches from where I stood. I remember surfacing from a dive to find it hailing sideways, our boat surrounded by three menacing waterspouts. I remember peering down into the water from atop the old Bahia Honda bridge at night to see the slow-moving, eerie sillhouette of an enormous shark, illuminated by the bioluminescent plankton in the water. I remember seeing my first tarpon underwater — massive, prehistoric-looking fish, a group of six swimming past me, their huge scales gleaming in the morning sunlight like polished silver. I remember Mel Fisher, discoverer of the Spanish Galleon, Atocha, proudly slapping a silver ingot he recovered from the wreck onto a table top, its great report stunning the audience into silence, then boastfully telling us it was worth 50 thousand dollars! I remember my surprise at seeing tiny Key Deer quietly yet swiftly swimming from island to island in the backcountry. And I remember laughing harder than I’ve ever laughed as two dolphins hijacked the canoe of two of my students and gave them the ride of their young lives. (I almost lost my job over that one — a tall tale for another time.)
Today, many Seacamp alumni are my close friends and colleagues. If you saw the wonderful film, Arctic Tale, it was made by Seacamp alumnus Adam Ravetch, who’s gone on to become a major underwater filmmaker. Dr. James A. Bohnsack, who was my favorite instructor at Seacamp and someone I consider one of the biggest influences in my life, is the Team Leader for Ecosystems and Biodiversity Investigations in the Protected Resources Branch at NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center in Miami. His voice and leadership have been critical for protecting fish resources. Dr. James D. Thomas, a good friend and colleague, is a professor at NOVA Southeastern University and has traveled the world in search of tiny crustaceans called amphipods and helping to unlock environmental trends through patterns in their distribution. Jim is helping us now identify the myriad of amphipods we collected in the Bering Sea during the Greenpeace-led expedition in 2007. I recently met fellow Seacamper, Gaelin Rosenwaks, at the Explorer’s Club in New York and learned of Global Ocean Exploration, a company she founded to “devoted to bringing cutting-edge expedition research science to the public through photography, writing, film, and web-based products.”? As I write this, Gaelin is blogging from aboard a research ship near the Hebrides studying salmon. Not all Seacampers go on to work in marine science…in fact, most don’t. Some are accountants, attorneys, software engineers, interpreters, teachers, etc. But I doubt any can forget their Seacamp experiences, and most I’ve met since continue to hold a special place in their heart for the oceans and a greater, enduring awareness of their fragility.
When I began the Ocean Doctor’s “50 Years – 50 States -50 Speeches Expedition” earlier this year, my Seacamp experiences were, predictably, front and center in my mind. Young people have a natural fascination about the ocean, if only given the chance to experience it. I wish I could toss all of the nearly 10,000 students in the 12 states I’ve visited so far into those turquoise waters of Looe Key. Short of that, I hope that my words, images and videos can convey a small fraction of the wonder of those waters. From the heartwarming responses I’m receiving from students all over the country — even students who’ve never seen the ocean — I’m optimistic.
Never could I imagine in 1974 that I would spend a decade of my career working less than 100 miles south of the Keys on a large island, sitting at night with a mojito in my hand gazing northward toward the Keys. As I returned from Havana a couple of weeks ago and peered out the window (yes, I still prefer the window), the first land I saw was Big Pine Key, and there was Seacamp, still occupying that special corner of the island, and that special place in my heart.
Today I reflect on the experiences many of us Seacampers shared, like the pungent, organic scent of mangroves standing in bathtub-warm waters. Like the impossibly beautiful sunsets of painted oranges and purples, and knowing the next night’s would probably be even better. Like the earth-shaking roar from above that triggered our sprint outside to worship the DC3 kissing the treetops as a gray cloud of mosquitocide billowed from its hold on top of us. Like the mild sting of a Casseopea jellyfish in your armpits. Like the sound of the incessant crunching of colorful parrot fish’s beaks against the coral. Like the constant, steely yet curious stare of the barracuda. Like the sandpaper feel of a shark’s skin or the glassy smooth feel of the dome of a Moon Jelly on your fingertips. Like the sickenly sweet taste of bug juice. Like the light of the moon dancing on Coupon Bight as the splashes of distant fish echo in the night. To my fellow Seacampers, I think of you today — and most days. And to Eastern Airlines: A late but sincere thanks for the ride…I’ll never forget it.