Seeing nurse sharks, dolphins, barracudas and coral reefs while snorkeling in the ocean was Kendall Schaefer’s favorite part of the experience.

Brayden Murphy said the green turtle he saw in the ocean was pretty cool, and he also liked making new friends from different states.

The hands-on interaction with different species and organisms, from learning about coral reef ecology to seeing a manatee, a pod of dolphins and a shark, is something Taylor Sutherland will never forget.

Story continues below gallery

They were among nine Immanuel Lutheran School students and staff members who spent a week of their summer in Key Largo, Florida, participating in the MarineLab marine science education program.

The Marine Resources Development Foundation program is a nonprofit organization created in 1971 to help improve the quality of life on Earth through education and the responsible use of marine resources for food, fresh water, energy, minerals and medicine.

Every other year since 2010, Immanuel seventh- and eighth-graders have had the opportunity to attend MarineLab. The cost this year was $1,650, with meals, lodging, linens and ocean-safe sunblock provided.

Taylor said her mother, Tara, went twice when she was a student at Seymour High School, and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“My mom’s stories about the camp when she attended herself encouraged me to go,” said Taylor, who will be in eighth grade this coming school year. “When the opportunity presented itself and a group from ILS was going, I knew I had to be one of them.”

Kendall and Brayden, who both completed their eighth-grade year in the spring, heard about the program from Kevin Rudzinski, a math teacher at Immanuel who coordinated the trip.

“After he showed me all of the stuff that they do while at camp, I wanted to go,” Kendall said.

“I thought it would be cool to go to the ocean because I have only been to the ocean one time,” Brayden said.

Rudzinski’s first trip to the Florida Keys was in 1999 when he was a science teacher at a Lutheran school in St. Louis, Missouri. Twenty-three people went on the trip that year, but it was through a different program.

He went again in 2001 and 2003 before switching to the MarineLab program in 2006. Since then, he has gone on the trip five times.

This year was his first time taking Immanuel students. They joined four other Midwest schools — Trinity Lutheran School in Davenport, Iowa, St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Des Peres, Missouri, St. James Lutheran School in Quincy, Illinois, and Rochester Central Lutheran School in Rochester, Minnesota — for a total of 60 students and chaperones.

On the first day, after a swim test and gear orientation, students received an introduction to the Keys habitat, participated in a water quality lab and snorkeled in a lagoon.

The remainder of the trip consisted of discussions about seagrass ecology, coral reef ecology and field identification of reef fish; labs to learn about water quality, invertebrate diversity, sponge spicule identification and zooplankton identification; and field trips to learn about seagrass ecology, mangrove ecology, coral reef ecology and hardbottom shoal ecology.

The last full day included a sunset cruise to the Everglades backcountry.

Rudzinski said they saw organisms that are found nowhere else in the world and parts of the thousands of coral reefs in Key Largo.

“The idea is that the more organisms you find in an area — the more diversity, the more different kinds of organisms you find — the healthier the ecosystem,” he said.

Students may learn about some of the marine life and ecology in biology classes at school, but it’s different when they get to see, touch and feel those things, Rudzinski said.

“One of the coolest things about this program is that when we go out and snorkel and we look at these things, the marine biologists that are leading our program, they get out in the water and collect things for us to be able to touch and see,” he said.

“The kids are holding them, and they can touch these things, they can experience them and they can see them swimming around … and see how they interact,” he said. “It’s not just like seeing a picture in a textbook. It’s absolutely experiential. This is experiential, hands-on learning at its core. You have kids who maybe struggle with the book learning, but they’ll get out there, and they’ll know this stuff.”

The students agreed the trip took biology class to another level.

“We really haven’t learned about a lot of the things we were given the opportunity to discuss and view under a microscope,” Taylor said. “Being able to identify sponge spicules, various reef fish, species of corals, phylum of invertebrate and water quality tests were neat things that we learned.”

Kendall said she now knows more about the different phylums of creatures in the ocean, the importance of seagrass to the ecosystem, different types of sea turtles that live in the reef in the Keys and which ones are endangered, ecology, water quality and how to measure it and how to identify types of fish in the ocean.

Brayden said he was intrigued by the sea turtles and finding out how people can help them.

The water quality testing the students participated in goes into a worldwide database that is used by scientists, Rudzinski said.

Several of the Immanuel students also got up early in the morning to run and watch the sunrise, and they all participated in daily Bible study devotions in the morning with Rudzinski and at night with Matt Nieman, Immanuel’s youth director.

“I think it’s a very unique situation because I don’t know of many other experiences in the places I’ve been where kids can go and do literally a fun, educational camp and yet have it be connected to a faith- and spiritual-building sort of thing,” Rudzinski said.

The motto of the trip was “Exploring God’s gifts.”

“I hope they understand that when we see the diversity and beauty in God’s creation that they recognize when all of that works together and all of that remains balanced, they understand exactly how special they are because God takes care of that and yet He takes care of you,” Rudzinski said.

“We want them to put their faces in the water and experience the wonders of God’s creation in a way that they never have before so they can understand how absolutely unique and special they are and that back at home, God is taking care of them in their unique situations,” he said. “That’s really our big picture and why we do our trip.”

Taylor and Brayden both said they now have a better understanding of marine ecology, while Taylor and Kendall both said they made a lot of friends and may consider becoming a marine biologist.

“I would encourage others to attend. It was an educational trip, but it was a blast, and I am so glad I was given the opportunity to go,” Taylor said.

“Don’t think twice about going to a camp like this if you know you will have fun at it,” Brayden said.

Kendall had one word for other Immanuel students considering the trip in 2018.

“Go,” she said. “Because it is awesome. The experience, the fellowship and the devotions were all great.”

Rudzinski said he plans to continue offering the trip to Immanuel students and hopes to encourage a couple more area schools to go.

“We’re hoping to increase the program to where we have 90-plus participants,” he said. “The reason for that is because when we go down to MarineLab, they have the business of having to fill their camp for their purposes, so if we take 90-plus, then we fill their camp, and then it’s our program only, and we can do what we do down there.”

On the Web

MarineLab has been in operation since 1985 and serves 4,000 students and teachers each year.

The mission of the program is to use education and adventure in the Florida Keys marine ecosystem to foster environmental awareness and stewardship on a local, regional and global scale.

For information, visit marinelab.org.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.