Twenty five enthusiastic young snorkelers soaked up the sun with goggles on their faces and fins on their feet.
On Tuesday, day campers swam with faces slightly below the surface of the water at Fort Zachary Taylor beach testing out their equipment and preparing for two snorkeling trips to the reef later in the week.
"The campers are participating in what they are learning about," said director Mill McCleary. "It's not just about having fun, but learning all about the ocean. They go on a field trip a day where the interactively learn and experience classroom learning as well."
Reef Relief's coral camp started June 9 and runs through August 15. The program meets from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Activities throughout the week include dissecting a great barracuda, snorkeling at the beach and reef, collecting and testing water samples, and some even learn how to compose fish surveys on site at the reef.
Coral camp is open to 25 students each week, ages 6 to 12, and fills up quickly. Usually 75 percent are booked by mid-April said McCleary.
There are scholarship opportunities, for those who would love to attend but can't necessarily afford it, McCleary said. Last summer 19 scholarships were given out, up from previous years.
But this year, Reef Relief has partnered with the Key West Housing Authority and Wesley House, along with local businesses, and 38 scholarships were handed out to students the director explained proudly.
"Reef Relief has many sponsors that help with camp by giving checks," said McCleary. "Last year Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund gave us a grant for gear. This year we received a grant from Mote Marine through the Protect our Reefs license plates."
Both Sebago Watersports and Fury Water Adventures take the youngsters on the snorkeling field trips to the reef, he said.
And this year the program has three summer interns, all marine science majors.
"The campers know so much about the ocean, they are so eager to learn, and they ask great questions," said 20-year-old intern Hannah Spencer. "I wanted to spend my summer helping educate others about what I am passionate about. The children are our future so teaching them about the ocean is beneficial."
When the day campers arrive on the first day, they take a quiz to measure their knowledge of the marine ecosystem. By the end of the week, they take the same quiz to gauge how much they have learned in one week of participating in the coral camp.
"I learn more each year," said Nathan Barosso, 11. He has been attending the program for five years. "Each summer there are new instructors which make the experience different."
In the action packed five days the students learn about different types of fish, coral and waves. After all, campers agree that exploring the reef and learning about the marine ecosystem surrounding Key West is what coral camp is all about.
"My favorite part of camp is learning about the ocean, coral, and going to the reef," said 11-year-old Thomas Besson. "The best day to go to the reef would be one where the ocean is calm, there are clear skies, and great visibility."