RUSKIN — Many of the children had never been camping. One was afraid to go out on a floating dock at E.G. Simmons Park boat ramp. Another saw a storm rolling in off of Tampa Bay and headed for the parking lot, away from the water they were there to study.
For the most part, though, the 39 students from Dowdell Middle Magnet School in Palm River embraced the adventure, learning about what makes a healthy bay and how they can contribute to its well-being.
A grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program provided the students the opportunity to camp at the county-owned park in Ruskin and even purchase a few more tents for the school. This was the second of four camp outs the grant is funding.
“This grant is for education and a better understanding of Tampa Bay,” Lead teacher Susan Ferrell told the students, gathered in the September sun on the edge of the boat ramp last week. “The reason we are here is because this is the only campground on salt water, where we could bring students to teach them about the bay.”
This year’s Bay Mini-Grant program drew 29 applicants. The estuary program’s Community Advisory Committee evaluated the grant proposals, then recommending 20 for funding between $500 to $5,000.
Funds for the mini-grant program come from sales of the Tampa Bay Estuary license plate — also known as the “tarpon tag.”
The Dowdell students were eager to participate and especially eager to take a dunk in the bay on a sweltering Friday.
“I went camping once before at the Hillsborough River and learned about the catfish coming through and what makes the river healthy,” said eighth-grader Zachary Lennard, as he prepared to hike the beach.
His friend, Devin Reddish, also an eighth-grader, said this time, they’d look for signs of a healthy bay. “We had to write a paragraph about why we wanted to do this, to be chosen for this trip,” he said. Both boys agreed even a hot day on the bay was way better than a day in the classroom.
J’Daisja Nixon, a seventh-grader, was a bit leery about wandering out onto the floating dock in her beige patent-leather flats. But her hand was the first to go up when Ferrell asked the students what causes a fish kill and a toxic odor on Tampa Bay.
“It’s red tide,” the 12-year-old said, after which Ferrell explained to the students that red tide is naturally occurring toxic algae bloom that can kill fish and sicken manatees and humans.
On this day, there were no signs of red tide, trash on the beach or other evidence of an unhealthy water body. Just shells, mangrove seed pods and small pieces of driftwood.
The Tampa Bay Estuary Program has been offering Bay mini-grants since it was established 22 years ago, said spokeswoman Nanette O’Hara. “They have always been an important part of our program.”
And since the tarpon tags provide a steady source of funding for the grants, it is much easier to keep them going, she said.
Misty Cladas, project manager for the estuary program, said the grants are meant to draw the community into the conversation of what to do to protect Tampa Bay.
“The most important thing about the bay mini grants is to get the funds back into the communities,”Cladas said, “so people can learn why protecting and restoring Tampa Bay is important.”