Camp Snapshot


San Diego, Calif.

$675 (SEACAMP I), $850 (SEACAMP II)

Ages: 7th-12th grades

One minute you're tearing up the surf on a boogie board at La Jolla Shores, just north of San Diego. The next you're pounding through the waves in a kayak. Then you're snorkeling in clear, blue ocean off a dive boat…

Sounds like fun and games, but at SEACAMP San Diego they take learning seriously, and every fun-filled activity is an opportunity to teach.

The diversions are merely that, as the paramount paradigm of SEACAMP San Diego is education. Divided into two summer sessions, plus school year programs where school groups are invited to participate, this camp is for kids who are serious about marine sciences.

"We get kids who decide to come to an educational program during the summer, and 95 percent are interested in pursuing a career in marine biology," says camp director Phil Zerofski. "Whether it's someone who wants to work with whales and dolphins -- what you usually get -- or someone who wants to be a marine veterinarian or researcher. We tend to have a great group of students because they're deciding to come to an educational program during their vacation."

What's also interesting is the geographical mix of 7th-12th graders who attend the camp -- most are landlocked. They come from cities like Denver, Phoenix and Las Vegas, and many have never seen an ocean, much lest plumbed its depths in a wetsuit.

From Sea World to SEACAMP

SEACAMP began about 14 years ago when Sea World's marine mammal director, Mike Yeakle, wanted to create more of a classroom environment.

Though he was creating a kids' camp there was no doubt that SEACAMP's focus would be more geared toward an interactive classroom experience that you just can't get in your typical biology lab.

After 10 years of running the camp, Mike found another job and planned to close it down. That's when Zerofski, who has been running SEACAMP's program for seven years now, stepped in and bought the goodwill client list and the SEACAMP name.

"I said, 'We have a program where we're getting letters back from kids that this has been the best time of their life,'" recalls Zerofski about his motivation to keep the camp running.

So a deal was sealed and SEACAMP Enterprises became SEACAMP San Diego. What Zerofski soon found were the many headaches caused by the niggling details of actually running a camp -- insurance, general accounting and budgets.

"The programming comes very easily for me; it's a great program," says Zerofski. "But I came in with a biology background and knew nothing of the business aspect."

Zerofski quickly utilized his resources -- the accountant and insurance company that were already in place, other camp directors, plus a myriad of ocean safety experts who observed the program to see if there was anything about SEACAMP's water activities that were unsafe.

Fortunately, these experts gave the green light and an organizational foundation was laid for this new era in SEACAMP's history.

What also helped ease the transition was SEACAMP's reliance on professional staff. All of them have degrees in either marine sciences or education and some even have a Masters or are working on their Masters. Add to that an intensive hiring and training process and SEACAMP had the necessary tools to provide a top-notch educational program.

"The success of our program is the staff; they all love to work with kids and enjoy what they're doing. No one gets paid enough to do this for any other reason," jokes Zerofski.

SEACAMP currently has 16 full-time staffers and is now in the process of hiring six new people whose priorities must be kids and safety, beyond the professional degree requirements. Once hired, a background check will be run by the insurance company to ensure worry-free staffing.

"We do the background check after we hire because it's expensive to run one and there are only certain things you can ask in the interview," says Zerofski.

Another important aspect that Zerofski is intent on is keeping the price of each session as low as possible so that the program does not become exclusive, especially given that most campers are flying to San Diego to attend. SEACAMP also offers scholarships to low-income kids who show promise in the classroom.

"If a teacher has a student that deserves to come, but can't come, we want to make every effort we can so that student can come out," says Zerofski. "During the summertime we give about six scholarships. Usually the kids who can't afford it, or do candy sales or have a summer job to afford it are the ones who get the most out of it. We get kids who sell candy bars for a year to come to camp."

A Day in the Life

So what motivates a kid to spend a full year selling candy to attend SEACAMP? It's the way the camp is set up to facilitate an interactive learning environment while making the most of its seaside locale on San Diego Bay.

A typical day at SEACAMP begins with lab and a water activity. At first glance the word lab may connote glassy-eyed stares at a projection screen, but SEACAMP's labs feature a 1,500-gallon shark tank and other tanks that hold various sea creatures.

It's hands-on learning with a two-person lecture tag team. The lectures themselves are more question-and-answer oriented, with a concerted effort to keep the material fresh and the kids involved.

"The kids are excited about learning and half the time they don't even know they're learning," says Zerofski. "We'll give them a quick 10-minute talk, then let them handle the animals, and then give them a five-minute talk about something else. When we take them out snorkeling we can point out these animals and have the students explain what they know about them. We keep emphasizing these points in every activity so that they're constantly learning about it and learning about it in a fashion they'll remember."

The interactivity is an important element for both the campers and the lab teachers. Generating an inquisitive atmosphere is crucial to keeping the program fresh and away from the one-way street a typical lecture can become.

"A big part of it is knowing what the kids are into. We ask a lot of questions. I'd rather have a student talk about an animal than me talk about it," says Zerofski. "They're sharing what they know and feel more a part of what's going on, and the other kids get to hear them. I try to ask questions that provoke them to teach themselves in a sense."

Beyond the lab are the aforementioned water activities -- kayaking, boogie boarding, snorkeling, beach walks and even scuba diving for the more advanced campers. Each offers opportunities for education. Even boogie boarding sparks discussion about ocean currents and oceanography, while giving someone who may have never ridden a wave, or seen one for that matter, the opportunity to do it.

The apex of SEACAMP's water activities is a one-day trip on a dive boat to the Coronado Islands in water with 40-foot visibility. During leopard shark schooling season, campers are taken just off La Jolla Shores to snorkel and observe the sharks.

The campers are well-prepared for these trips with an introductory, controlled-cove snorkel, where those who are at first uncomfortable with submerging can still stand up and put their masked face in the water.

"When we take the kids out for the first time we don't ask them whether or not they can swim. If you asked them on the spot in front of a group, 'How many of you can't swim?' it's embarrassing to them," says Zerofski. "When it comes down to that, we have flotation devices they can use. They are always with a couple of instructors, and if the instructors notice that someone's uncomfortable one of them will say, 'All right, I want you guys to stay with me because I want to show you this over here.' It usually happens without bringing more attention to those students. We've had kids who couldn't swim who are comfortable enough to dive under the water and pick stuff up. It's great to see the kid who overcomes something while they're here."

At SEACAMP II -- geared mainly for returning campers -- a two-day dive boat trip is embarked upon, and a real-life research project is completed. Sometimes, at both SEACAMP I and SEACAMP II, campers get to help with or observe a project being coordinated by Scripps Research Institute, just up the road in La Jolla.

"At least they get to see some of the research going on, and realize that marine biology is not just telling a dolphin to jump through a hoop," says Zerofski. "We also have a former staff member who works up at the Marine Fisheries, and he'll give slide presentations and talk about some of the work he does. The kids get to see real research, whether or not they get to participate in it."

Bryan BuchkoComment