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Hunting Tiny Sea Monsters

Jacques Cousteau said it best: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”

For years, the Maritime Education Network in Old Saybrook has echoed Cousteau’s fascination with sea life. Founder and director, Kathy David, has worked hard charting a steady course to educate willing students about Connecticut’s largest and most important natural resource: the Long Island Sound.

Successful in her venture to bring an appreciation of beach and sea life to shoreline children, Kathy first fell in love with the beauty, serenity and intrigue of life on the water when her father (an Essex constable) was one of the very first men to do the marine patrol. He used to take her fishing on the Connecticut River.

“We have an unbelievably beautiful place to live here on the shoreline, and we are lucky and grateful to teach the kids how important this place is, and how exciting and fun it can be,” says Kathy, who grew up in Ivoryton.

Combining her passions for the ocean and education, she’s found a way to make use of her master’s degree in education and graduate work in oceanography while doing what she loves most.

Encouraging children to discover fresh interests in areas of learning they may not yet have been exposed to, Kathy uses over three decades of teaching experience to create a program that opens children up to extraordinary coastal surroundings. At the same time, she integrates aspects of safety, ecology, environmentalism and sea knowledge into an adventurous educational experience.

She employs an exceptional staff of educators from a variety of different disciplines and school districts. Together they aid in her process of challenging children with the rigors of the ocean. Sliding down sand dunes, fishing, sailing, lobstering and, of course, otter trawling (also known as “dragging”) this extraordinary program often functions as the spark that ignites a child’s mind for enthusiastic out-of-classroom learning.

Drenched in sunshine, beach sand between their toes, students explore the tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean in wide-eyed wonder. Simultaneously, they make new friends and lasting summertime memories.

“We must be doing something right, because our students are always happy and tired at the end of the day,” Kathy says. “I think that says a lot. We are hands-on learning, a place where kids can have fun, get excited about science, nature and the environment, while enjoying summer on the water, at the beach, relaxing and being kids.

“I am very grateful to be doing what I am doing,” she adds. A lover of everything outdoors, Kathy is opposed to being confined inside – that’s why she favors using nature’s classroom.

“This camp was one of the best summer experiences our daughter Kate has ever had,” says Jennifer Farrell of Essex. Her daughter was part of the program two summers ago. “This wonderful experience was the start of Kate’s love for science. It ignited her passion for marine biology and gave her a confidence in herself we hadn’t seen before.”

Kathy David is vigilant about ensuring that each student gets individualized instruction and a hands-on chance to participate in every aspect of all the tasks. She strives to keep the ratio (on small craft boats, in the camp) to one teacher for every three students.

“Kate came home very excited to have had the chance to drive the boat at camp herself,” says Jennifer. “That was definitely one of the highlights of her week, and a memory she still talks about with friends.”

“Getting the kids out in small boats and getting them comfortable with navigating the LIS waterways helps to foster a lifelong love of boating. That’s just one aspect of our program here,” says Kathy.

Students also spend time visiting a multitude of different locales. The Marine Discovery Program summer camp students travel, via bus, to Niantic’s Hole-in-the-Wall Beach, Westbrook’s West Beach, as well as Clinton Beach and Harvey’s Beach in Old Saybrook. Each sandy destination is home to a different learning quest, such as crabbing with a string, collecting drift wood, exploring caves, hunting for the creatures of Long Island Sound, species identification, beach scavenger hunts, crafts and a gamut of different games.

Older students are able to buckle up their life jackets and board the boats, an experience many look forward to for years. They learn how to expertly navigate waterways, coming ashore at interesting places such as Selden’s Island in Lyme, and Great Island, the barrier beach of Griswold Point, and Calves Island.

It wouldn’t be a true sea experience without a yarn or two about ancient sea lore. A big favorite each year is hearing the legendary tail of Buoy 14 – a popular ghost story about the magical, mysterious powers that surround this buoy and haunting experiences that may (or may not) have actually occurred. If you want hear the details, you’ll have to ask a student or Kathy, who likes the keep the mystery under wraps until it’s told to students out on the water.

Learning at the Maritime Education Network is not only concerned with the ocean, the beach and the environment. It’s about traversing through different coastal inlets, watersheds, and wetland marshes, getting up close and personal with the aquatic animals and fish of Long Island Sound. It’s an education that spans diverse curricular areas including math, science, local and world history, technology and even career education.

“These kids learn incredible amounts of information without realizing it – hence, the glory of nontraditional, experiential, hands-on learning,” says Kathy David.

Each year the nonprofit Network applies for several different grant programs to help offset costs for students (campers) who may otherwise not be able to participate. The program offers a range of different camps for all ages.

The Marine Science Extraordinaire camp is for grades 4 and 5. The Marine Discovery Program Camp is for grades 1, 2, 3, 4 and sometimes 5. The Marine Explorer Program (on-water expeditionary program) is for students in grades 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Sound Connections is for students in grades 5, 6, 7 and 8. The newest addition to summer offerings is the Tide Cycles Sleepover for grades 3 and 4.

“Ultimately, our goal is to educate children in a fun exciting environment, where they make new friends and lasting memories. If we can do that, then we are successful,” Kathy says.

For more information about the Maritime Education Network and the programs and camps they offer, visit the website at www.maritimeeducation.org

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