Conservation is built into Sea Base Marine STEM Adventure

Sea Base Marine STEM Adventure flag
Photo by Roger Morgan

The Marine STEM Adventure at Sea Base isn’t just about science, technology, engineering and math. It’s also about conservation.

Through a series of partnerships with outside research organizations, the Marine STEM Adventure gives participants a glimpse of the work being done by professional scientists and researchers to preserve the fragile habitat in and around the Florida Keys.

“It’s a great way for Scouts to witness unique ecosystems like mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, and still have a very fun, adventurous component,” says Sea Base STEM director Joey Mandara.

While there’s enough fish surveys, shark tagging, wildlife study and coral restoration projects to teach participants about the small steps volunteers can take to help preserve our planet’s ocean ecosystems, there’s also enough kayaking, snorkeling, offshore fishing and other aquatic adventures to make sure everyone simply has fun.

Mandara is an Eagle Scout with a degree in biology. He worked for conservation organizations Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium and The Nature Conservancy before bringing his unique set of skills to Sea Base.

“The Scouting program is where I developed my curiosity for nature and therefore the eagerness to turn it into a career,“ says Mandara. “I hope this program is able to do the same for its participants.“

Mandara was kind enough to walk me through what a week of the Marine STEM Adventure looks like from a participant’s point of view.

Day One: Getting acclimated

Arrival day is focused on getting participants settled in at Sea Base’s Brinton Environmental Center on Summerland Key and learning about the basics of the Florida Keys ecosystem. Sea Base staffers go over the plan for the week and address any lingering questions or concerns from visitors.

“The primary focus is not necessarily ‘you have to take this data’ and ‘you have to record all this information,’ ” says Mandara. “We want them to begin the week with a good feeling toward the work that we do here, and the work researchers are doing throughout the Florida Keys.”

A snorkler dives deep to count fish
Photo courtesy of Sea Base

Day Two: Fish survey

Here’s where the fun begins.

First thing in the morning, Scouts take a boat out to the reef at Looe Key, located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. There, they participate in a fish survey project conducted by the Reef Environmental Education Foundation that’s equal parts science and pure snorkeling fun.

This is one of the few projects that doesn’t result in the actual submission of data to the partner organization. Instead, it serves as more of an extended orientation to give participants an idea of the kind of work that goes into these endeavors.

“We have conversations with them,” Mandara says. “What kind of fish did you see at this site?”

Snorkler holding fish ID card
The Sea Base Marine STEM Adventure is a mix of science and fun. Photo courtesy of Sea Base

Day Three: Reef restoration

Sea Base Marine STEM Adventure participants spend this day working at the Sea Base’s coral nursery. It’s a critical part of Sea Base’s massive effort to help restore the third largest barrier reef system in the world.

There are actual living, growing corals in a nursery right on the Sea Base property, and those nurseries don’t maintain themselves.

Participants might do algae mitigation, which Mandara compares to a farmer pulling weeds that could interfere with crop production.

They might do water quality tests, because coral grows best in water that’s within a certain temperature range and a certain level of acidity and a certain level of salination.

“They’re contributing data to an active, working coral restoration facility,” says Mandara.

When that work is done, guest spend a relaxing afternoon exploring nearby Key West, a popular tourist destination located at the southernmost point in Florida.

The coral nursery at Florida Sea Base
The coral nursery at Sea Base. Photo courtesy of Sea Base

Day Four: They’re gonna need a bigger boat

And on this day, they go looking for sharks.

As part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Cooperative Shark Tagging Program, participants fish for sharks, and the staff tags whatever they catch, to help the NOAA learn more about the life history of Atlantic sharks.

As part of the Beyond Our Shores Foundation mahi-mahi tagging program, participants fish for mahi-mahi to help scientist study the life, movements and population dynamics of the fish also known as dolphinfish.

On this day, the data accumulated by participants is submitted to the respective organizations.

This is real conservation work.

Day Five: The bioblitz

A bioblitz is a single event focused solely on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area in a specified amount of time.

You’d be hard pressed to find a better place to do a bioblitz than Big Munson Island, an untouched, uninhabited island off Big Pine Key.

“We look at the different types of tide pools on the island, and we’ll look at the species in there,” says Mandara. “We’ll go over the different types of mangroves that we have out there. There’s a large, large amount of biodiversity.”

Marine STEM Adventure participants learn how coral is planted back into the sea. Photo courtesy of Sea Base

Day Six: At the reef

Sea Base Marine STEM Adventure participants first learn about the coral on Day Three. On Day Six, they go out to the reef and see it in person during an epic snorkeling adventure.

“They’ve learned all about the different stressors that are affecting the decline of the reefs, and they’ve learned about some possible solutions,” says Mandara. “Now they go out and do some surveys.”

BleachWatch is a program overseen by Mandara’s friends at Mote.

“They like to have volunteers go out to the reefs and record if they’re seeing any bleaching or any type of disease, and that helps with their monthly condition reports,” Mandara says.

Participants also help an organization called Florida Sea Grant with its stony coral loss disease survey.

Data collected by participants is submitted to both organizations.

Later in the day, they build remote operated vehicles, they paddle kayaks and standup paddleboards, and go on a night snorkel.

Day Seven: Homeward bound

On the final day, the crew leaves behind their air-conditioned dorms at the Brinton Environmental Center and heads home.

“It is through the help of our donors that innovative programs such as the Marine STEM Adventure and coral nursery project were developed,” Mandara says. “Through hands-on learning, Marine STEM gives Scouts the chance to explore the beautiful ecosystems of the Florida Keys and allows them to experience what is like to work as a marine biologist.

“It’s a lot of adventure, but there’s always some degree of conservation involved in it, too.”

You can book Sea Base adventures for both 2023 and 2024 on the Sea Base homepage.

About Aaron Derr 467 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.