One of our account managers, Elizabeth, joined a group of students from the Midwest on their Splash into Science program in the Florida Keys. This is part two of her recap of the experience. Read part one here.
Before we could get into the water, we had a lesson on dolphin training and how they use positive reinforcement to train the animals. The students even had a chance to try it out on each other! After our classroom talk, we went down to the coves where the dolphins live for a brief talk on dolphin anatomy, rules and expectations, and to get into our wetsuits. Then, it was finally time to get into the water with the dolphins!
I got to swim with Cora and Alfonz. I don’t think my smile could have been any bigger! It felt like only a few minutes, but we were in the water for almost a half an hour. I got to rub their backs and bellies, have them dance and do tricks, and even be pushed and pulled through the water.
Imagine sitting out in the water with your arms out, waiting for two 700 lb animals to come and get you. Once the trainer gave them the signal, they dove beneath the surface and weren’t seen again until they were right below me. I had to quickly grab their dorsal fins and hold on. A little tip from me to you: keep your mouth shut, unless you want to drink a lot of sea water!
This alone could be considered an experience of a lifetime, but there was so much more this trip had to offer!
After a picnic lunch back at Pennekamp State Park, we put on our snorkel gear and prepared to get in the water. After practicing our snorkel skills, we hiked the Wild Tamarind Trails and saw several lizards and birds in the area. Then, we headed to dinner before returning to our hotel for activities led by our Course Leader, Doug, before relaxing at the pool after a long, fun-filled day.
After breakfast by the pool, we left the hotel for Curry Hammock State Park. Doug gave us a lesson on dip netting and then we took our scoop nets out into the water and started dip netting to see what we could find. My colleague Gina spied a seahorse which we managed to wrangle! Doug had us bring our finds to the beach, and, surrounded by tubs of snails, hermit crabs, puffer fish, and so much more, gave us a beachside lesson on what we found.
As we ate our lunch, a quick rainstorm popped up. In true Florida fashion, it blew through quickly and the day returned to its previous beautiful state. We then headed to The Turtle Hospital which is actually a converted motel that includes several rehabilitation tanks, operation rooms, and educational facilities. We learned all about these amazing creatures and some of the unfortunate accidents that happen to them forcing them to end up at the turtle hospital.
We had the opportunity to tour the facility and see different style tanks with different types of turtles in each one. Some of these guys will be re-released and some will spend the rest of their lives at the hospital, depending on their injuries. We even had a chance to feed a few of them! This visit was one of the more impactful visits of the trip. Beyond the educational value of being there, we learned a great deal about these animals and ways in which we can help with their conservation.
Before heading back to the hotel for a pizza party, we made a stop at a place known as “Robbie’s” to the locals, where tarpon fish up to four feet along reside, along with plenty of souvenirs to browse. Then, it was time for pizza provided by a local pizza joint and kicking back by the hotel pool for our last night in Florida.
Our last day in Florida was bittersweet. We hated that it was the last day of our trip, but we were also very excited to go open sea snorkeling! We were dropped off about 25 yards from the reef we were set to explore and donned our life jackets, flippers, and masks. While some choose to dive into the water, I climbed down the ladder, which was a smart choice—we were right in the middle of a pod of jellyfish! Navigating around them was as simple as doing the breast stroke and letting the water motion sweep them out of the way, but it was still an incredible experience.
Once we cleared the jellies, we swam out to the reef. The view was unbelievable. Never in my life have I had the opportunity to experience what I saw there; fish of all colors, eels, jellies, and a plethora of coral spreading out below me.
It was an entirely independent ecosystem than the one we see above water, and I had a bird’s eye view to watch it. It was fascinating. Our hour and a half flew by quickly and, suddenly, the boat was blowing its horn signaling that it was time to head back in. I could’ve stayed out there all day!
During lunch, our last meal of the trip, it was amazing to see the growth in all the students during our week in Florida. Friendships were forged, discoveries made, and a few students even felt a pull towards career aspirations after the Splash into Science experience. After a round of goodbyes to our bus driver, course leaders, and students, we headed back to Charlottesville.
I’m grateful for the week I spent with those students and all that they taught me. They showed bravery, courage, and growth through some challenging participation activities and facing fears. I had new experiences and tried things I never thought I would. They were welcoming to Nikki, Gina, and me, and shared their excitement and enthusiasm for a week well spent.
With an experience like that, how could it not be considered the best trip ever?