KEY LARGO -- It's a Monday morning at MarineLab and 20 students from Stockbridge High School in south central Michigan could be taking one last lagoon snorkel before heading back to the frozen north.
But after a three-day crash marine biology course, most of it held at sea, these teens are too tired to take the plunge. Still, they'll be going back to Michigan with plenty of memories, as well as the type of understanding of the marine ecosystem that they just can't get in a classroom.
"For our kids, it's a unique experience. I tell them it's a once in a lifetime," said Stockbridge biology instructor Jeff Trapp.
Located at the end of a residential street on the shore of Largo Sound, next to Hidden Out Restaurant and the Jules' Undersea Lodge, MarineLab has been hosting schools like Stockbridge since 1985. More than 4,000 students from 150 schools took courses there last year.
Some programs last only a day, with South Florida schools coming in and out of without spending the night. Others, in which students eat and sleep in the MarineLab dormitory facilities, last as long as six days. But whether it's a short program or a long one, and whether the students are in high school, elementary school or middle school, the overriding mission remains the same.
"The goal ultimately is to teach them to be good marine stewards, stewards of the ocean, so when they grow up they'll make good decisions," said MarineLab Director Jessica Pulfer.
Despite having been a longtime staple along Largo Sound, MarineLab has always flown below the radar in the Upper Keys. That hasn't exactly been unintentional, Pulfer said.
Run by a nonprofit called Marina Resources Development Foundation, MarineLab works with schools from around the region, state and country, but its business model hasn't involved a lot of interaction with the community at-large.
But that's starting to change. For the past three years the lab has brought seventh graders from Plantation Key School, Key Largo School, Island Christian School and Treasure Village Montessori to Largo Sound for a free state-funded program called Coral Reef Classroom, in which they journey to the reef.
Last year, MarineLab began running a summer camp at the Ocean Reef Club. And instructors from the lab will host science nights this spring at Key Largo School and Plantation Key School.
"We've recently been trying to at least let people know who and what we are," Pulfer said.
If MarineLab hasn't made a huge impression on the average Keys resident, it has certainly made an impression on the schools that have participated in the program. Pulfer estimated that 90 percent of their client schools are repeat customers. Many have been coming for a decade or longer.
The programs offer something different to the students who participate in them, many of whom have never before donned a mask and fins. But they're no vacation.
During their three-day visit to MarineLab last month, the Stockbridge students took two trips to snorkel the Grecian Rocks reef. They took another boat trip into Largo Sound to learn about seagrass and the invertebrate species that make the seagrass home. On a fourth trip they journeyed to Florida Bay for a hands-on lesson about mangrove habitat. And in still another excursion, they boated further into the bay, to North Nest Key, where they scraped the sea bottom with large seine nets in order to learn about the many small bottom-dwellers and juvenile species that live there.
Lessons learned on the water were reinforced in evening classroom instruction on coral reefs, the ecology of seagrass and algae, and other topics.
Pulfer said the MarineLab curriculum emphasizes the interconnectivity between less glamorous species on the bottom of the food chain and the exciting and colorful reef fish that are closer to its top.
The message definitely reached Beth Huebner, a junior who says she plans on being a veterinarian.
"We learned about the ecosystem. How it functions is the balancing of the food chain, and if that wasn't there, everything in the ocean would be so messed up," she said.
Junior Sara Lewis also sounded as if she got the point when asked what new knowledge she'll take back to her classroom lessons in Michigan.
"Just the fact that there are so many small organisms in the system that are so important for everything," Lewis said.