On, In and Under the Water: Nature Adventure Camp’s Water Theme

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For four days last week, six 11- and 12-year-olds joined Juliana Duryea and me for a new Southampton Town Recreation program called “Nature Adventure and Water Safety Camp.” During the camp, which was held at Sagg Main Beach and Long Beach, at least a dozen parents and bystanders asked me, “What is this program you’re doing?”My initial response was, “I’m doing the program that I would’ve loved to have taken when I was their age!”

And I would briefly explain the elements of the course: water safety, handling yourself in the ocean surf, paddling skills, and learning about the plants and animals with which we share our cherished beaches, dunes and estuaries.

I’ve been teaching field ecology programs here on the East End since 1988. A very important consideration in offering a children’s program, at least for me, was to choose field locations such that the possibility of picking up ticks was as close to zero as possible. Those locations are the water and the adjacent bare, unvegetated beach sand.

Juliana and I share a love of the beach and the water. Both of us are ocean lifeguards at East Hampton’s Main Beach and members of East Hampton’s Volunteer Ocean Rescue organization. Paddling all sorts of watercraft and surfing are among our favorite things to do. And we’re both professional wildlife biologists, so when we are out on the water, or anywhere outdoors, we’re not just checking out the scenery but observing the flora and fauna.

I caught the beach bug sometime around age 10. Yet, despite spending countless hours at the beach during grammar and high school, and later as a lifeguard, I never learned many of the basic, and very interesting, aspects of beach, dune and marine ecology.

Thus, the Nature Adventure and Water Safety Camp.

Our first activity was a type of scavenger hunt: find two natural objects on the beach that you don’t know the identity of. Parts of mole crabs and skate and moon snail egg cases were among the most common items found and explained.

Then we set out for a short beach run, learning to distinguish among the sanderlings, terns and piping plovers. We even got a great look at two plover chicks that were only about a week old!

Using the mole crab as a mascot of sorts, we learned how to tuck into a ball with our toes and fingers, digging into the wet sand of the swash zone, and hold our position as the surf’s frothy whitewater passed over our heads and back.

A swim test out beyond the surf line followed, before we set out to capture and study live specimens of the amazing mole crab, an activity the students relished. It was here where we inadvertently learned what the sanderlings were feeding on as they ran up and down the wet sand, staying just out of reach of the sheet of moving water: tiny, green-colored, shrimp-like amphipods.

We compared the salinity of the ocean water (30 ppt) with that of adjacent Sagg Pond (7 ppt at the south end), and examined the items caught in our seine of the brackish pond: silversides, sheepshead minnows, sand shrimp, banded killifish, blue crab. Common dune plants and their adaptations for growing in the harsh dune and beach environments were discussed: beach pea (nitrogen fixer), sea rocket (a succulent annual), dusty miller (wooly leaves and stems), beachgrass (silica impregnated leaves).

A thermometer set on the surface of the beach sand confirmed that the sand was indeed hot, scorching the bottoms of our bare feet. The instrument was pegged at 140°F, the highest temperature that the thermometer could record!

Day one ended with a session playing in the surf. There’s no other way to develop skills and confidence in the surf than to get in it. While body surfing and boogie boarding, everyone experienced the pull of the rip current and learned that it didn’t pull much beyond the surf line where our morning swim test had ended.

Subsequent days involved stand-up paddling and kayaking; capsize rescues; bay seines; “dissecting” beach sand, plants and animals of the salt marsh; and more swim skills and drills.

We will be hosting another Nature Adventure and Water Safety camp at the end of August.

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