FORT DE SOTO — Tanner Womack and his eighth-grade classmate Chris Nguyen were floating in a kayak under a patch of yellow mangroves when they saw the dark shadow 15 feet from their vessel.
The boys, both 14, slowly lowered their oars into the water and quietly paddled toward the large gray orb.
“It’s a manatee,” Tanner whispered to Chris, who sat in the kayak’s back seat.
“No! It’s two manatees and they’re hugging,” Chris said.
“They’re mating!” Tanner exclaimed after they paddled a bit closer.
The boys were on a school field trip last week with Nature’s Academy, a nonprofit environmental educational company based in Pinellas that is expanding into Manatee. The program allows middle school students hands-on life-sciences experiences through outdoor ventures, including guided nature walks, snorkeling excursions and kayak trips at area parks and science facilities.
“The purpose of Nature’s Academy is to provide an educational conduit, to teach students, especially children, the value of our natural resources, ecosystems and wildlife,” said Dana Lawson, president of Nature’s Academy. “We hope to instill in our students a lifetime appreciation for the Earth ... resulting in a deeper understanding and desire to preserve nature in future generations.”
Lawson, who runs the program with vice president Jim Pounds, said the company is in the beginning stages of starting the program in Manatee.
Negotiations are already underway, she said, with Manatee County Parks and Recreation. Currently they are figuring out where to set up a home base for the program here.
Last week’s program participants hailed from Shoreline Christian School in Orange County, Calif. Lawson said they learned about Nature’s Academy through World Stride, an Orlando-based company that organizes school field trips and contracts out to vendors such as Nature’s Academy.
As Tanner, Chris and about two dozen other classmates glided down the water in their kayaks, birds including green heron, brown pelicans and snowy egrets flew overhead.
Prior to their shore departure at Fort De Soto Park, the boys knew what type of wildlife to look for.
That’s because they got a lesson about what fish and animals they’d observe on the trip from Billy Payne, a field instructor with Nature’s Academy.
“The mullet, they’ll be easy to spot. You’ll see them jumping out of the water,” said Field who is also a science teacher at Phoenix Academy in Sarasota.
He also taught them about the different types of mangroves they’d see and how they are an important part of the ecosystem there because they provide oxygen and food to other plants and animals in the area.
He passed around a handful of yellow mangrove leaves that he told students float to the bottom of the water and decompose.
At his request, students, including Samira Escobar, licked the leaves to taste the salt that they secrete into the water.
Marcee Boose, a teacher who accompanied the class on the trip, called it a great learning experience.
“They’re getting to experience things they usually wouldn’t experience in the classroom,” she said.
Earlier in the day, the group dissected sharks inside a classroom at Nature’s Academy’s home center on Mullet Key within Fort De Soto Park.
During the day’s final session, students snorkeled and drug dip nets through the water to collect various sea critters, including pipe fish, grass shrimp and horseshoe crabs.
It may seem like fun to some, but Lawson said the ultimate goal of the program is to foster better stewardship of limited resources within the state’s largest open air estuary of Tampa Bay.
“Each participant will have a deeper understanding of and thus compassion for the complex ecology of the area, why it is significant, the relevant anthropogenic threats and future conservation measures,” she said. “In turn, these participants will become future ambassadors affecting sustainable change throughout the community.”