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Polar bears, penguins topics of Sanibel Sea School winter camps

January 26, 2018
By MEGHAN McCOY ( , Island Reporter, Captiva Current, Sanibel-Captiva Islander

Youth learned about polar bears and penguins during the winter camps at the Sanibel Sea School, which involved many activities to further teach them about the animals.

Twenty-four campers participated in "Flip Out for Penguins Week," which was held the last week of December and lead by Sanibel Sea School Sundial Campus Site Manager Megan Duncan.

"I've always liked penguins, but never knew a great deal about them. Through planning this camp and teaching the campers, I also learned so much and have a much deeper love for these amazing animals," she said.

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Sanibel Sea School Sundial Campus Site Manager Megan Duncan led the “Flip Out for Penguins Week” winter camp during the last week of December. Twenty-four campers participated.

During the camp, the participants learned that there are 17-19 species of penguins - some are disputed by scientists.

"Penguins are only found in the Galapagos Islands and the southern hemisphere, never in the Arctic," Duncan said. "Not all penguins live on ice. Penguins have multiple layers of feathers for insulation that help keep them warm in the cold temperatures and dry after swimming for their food. Their distinct countershading helps them camouflage from predators and they have a fusiform shaped body, like a torpedo, that makes them expert swimmers."

Duncan said they also talked about how many penguin species are endangered.

"We talked about what the kids can do to help prevent this, which they could adopt in their every day lives," she said.

In addition, she said penguins have countercurrent heat exchange, which reduces heat loss to their extremities. The youth also learned that penguins lay only one to two eggs and many cold temperature penguins incubate them on their feet.

The week was full of fun activities to further teach the youth about penguins. Duncan said they measured their height to a penguins height to see how big penguins actually are.

"They made penguins out of coconuts and sea shells. We played with blue ice to see how global climate change is affecting glaciers and sea level," she said. "They became penguins by sliding on their bellies into the cold water, dug through ice water to find their food and carried their eggs on their feet. Just like penguins dive off of cliffs into the water, campers showed us their best dives by jumping out of canoes with lifejackets on. They tested just how waterproof feathers actually are. They played games that showed just how hard it is to forage for food. And of course surfing!"

Duncan said the campers really enjoyed being able to act like penguins by sliding on their bellies and jumping out of the canoes for penguin dives.

"As an instructor, it is always important to be adaptable. Many things can change like weather, campers' interest, arguments and timing, so it's very important to be able to think on your toes and be ready to have to do something completely different than what you planned," she said. "Sometimes, activities that you plan for the kids are not as interesting to them as you thought they would be and this is also when you need to be ready to change things up and quickly in order to keep the campers' attention."

The week of penguins was enjoyable for the instructor, especially when she saw the campers laugh and smile.

"We planned an activity about penguins foraging for their food that involved separating into teams and racing to gather as much food as possible (ping pong balls) in a certain amount of time," Duncan said. "I was surprised and very happy to see each and every one of my kids fully engaged in this activity and they really enjoyed it. That was my favorite activity of the week."

Twenty-one kids participated in the "Going Polar for Polar Bears," which was led by Sanibel Sea School Lead Marine Science Educator Johnny Rader, during the first week of January.

"Bears are my all-time favorite land creatures. This was really exciting to be able to teach about the marine bear to students," he said.

Rader explained that the scientific name for the polar bear is ursus maritimus, which translates to marine bear. Their webbed paws help in aiding them to swim, while also giving them traction for slippery sea ice.

"Polar bears are considered a marine mammal - they spend their life either in the water, or walking along the ice shelf in the Arctic," he said. "Unlike other bears, polar bears do not hibernate during colder months when food is scarce, except for pregnant and nursing mothers. Instead, they build up a layer of fat, or blubber. This layer of fat also provides insulation, which keeps them warm year-round."

The youngsters also learned that polar bears mostly prey upon ringed seals, waiting for them to come up for a breath of air, and are known to be opportunistic by feeding on carcasses of beached whales or other marine animals. Rader said the polar bear can sniff out an ice bound ringed seal from about 20 miles away.

"Although polar bears coats look white, they are actually translucent," he said. "Their hair follicles are hollow; the air space in each follicle scatters all colors and then reflects back all visible wavelengths of light, which makes their coat appear white. This white appearance helps camouflage with the animal's icy surroundings."

This is just some of the information the youngsters learned at the school's flagship campus.

"When we talked about how our impact on this planet is drastically impacting polar bears negatively, all the campers stepped up and said ways they wanted to change some habits to better protect the planet we live on," Rader said. "Turning lights out, using environmental safe clean products, conserving water, using more reusables, recycling and eating less meat."

The campers participated in a plethora of fun activities revolving around polar bears. He said they made polar bear crystals and used their sense of smell like a polar bear to guess different smells, such as peanut butter, honey, lemons, black pepper, coffee grounds, cilantro, bubble gum, peppermint, vanilla and cinnamon.

The youngsters were also able to participate in the school's ocean trip tradition - "Giving Our Worries to the Sea - on New Year's Day.

Other activities included jumping from "iceberg, to iceberg" by using surfboards, as well as the polar bear crawl relay race, seining and cast netting. Since the week was a little cold, Rader said they also drank tons of hot cocoa to warm up at the end of each day. He said he loved watching the "brave" youngsters polar bear plunge into the chilly ocean each day.

"They loved making the polar bear crystal, and trying to guess the different smells," Rader said. "I also love hearing them explain to their parents at the end of the week what they have learned."



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