Courtesy: Dan Volker, Jim Abernathy
In 2014, it was not unusual to find avid divers Jim Abernathy and Dan Volker under Blue Heron Bridge in Palm Beach County’s Phil Foster Park. The men regularly dive and take tourists to a stunning area under the bridge, a location world-renowned for diving and snorkeling. Divers and snorkelers are accompanied by a plethora of marine life: seahorses, octopus, schools of exotic fish, and a variety of other plant and animal life that thrive below the surface.
Above the surface, surrounding the men were tourists and residents alike basking in the hot sun and bathing in the blue waters. But, amidst the many people enjoying the beach, Abernathy and Volker noticed something concerning: a number of local residents and children were frolicking in waist-deep water. Curious, the men quickly found out the children didn’t know how to swim.
Living in Florida, they were disappointed to learn that the kids, who are lucky enough to live so close to the ocean, couldn’t take full advantage of their environment. It was a shame, as the kids took such interest in the divers, yet they didn’t have the skills to go beneath the surface to discover the whole new world of exotic marine life that lives just underneath their feet.
On Project Seahorse’s website, the men say that understanding the amazing underwater world “connects to the health of Palm Beach County now, and leads to an explosion in our coastal- and ocean culture-based tourism and related cottage industries….and this series of connections will transform our future.”
It was then, in 2014, that Project Seahorse was born. Its goal: to teach Palm Beach County kids how to swim and snorkel.
Making It Happen
Fast forward a year later, and the spark that started in Abernathy and Volker’s minds and hearts took a giant leap forward. In summer of 2015, Project Seahorse partnered with Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation and the City of Boynton Beach Parks and Recreation – among other private sponsors – to bring this wonderful experience to six separate camps and a total of 150 Palm Beach County children, ages 10 to 15.
Special Facilities Supervisor Joan Hutchinson says the county’s involvement made for a more organized fulfillment of the project, as county employees worked with the men to handle logistics, timeframes, permitting and more. “We took it to Recreation Services and helped them pull together a program that made sense for everyone,” Hutchinson said. More importantly though, Hutchinson added, the county’s support was key in developing community support for Project Seahorse and finding kids who would benefit from learning the skills Abernathy and Volker wanted to teach.
The program began several weeks before a big snorkel trip to Blue Heron Bridge with swim tests and lessons. Jonathan Dickinson, owner of Florida Freedivers, along with some of his staff, spent five days with each camp testing and teaching the children how to swim and snorkel. The little ones learned a variety of skills: from becoming comfortable wearing fins and masks, to the most important, how to breathe through a snorkel.
This was all done in the safety and control of the Palm Beach County Gleneagles Country Club Aquatic Center swimming pool at the CMAA Therapeutic Recreation Complex in John Prince Park in Lake Worth, which remained open for additional hours to accommodate Project Seahorse; the Boynton Beach group used Aqua Crest Pool in Delray Beach. Dickinson and his staff spent approximately 30 hours with the children teaching them the skills they’d need for their open water adventure. Certified water safety instructors from the Therapeutic Recreation Services Section worked with many of the children, helping them strengthen and improve their swimming skills.
“After weekly snorkeling lessons, one amazing outcome of the Project Seahorse program was that each teen improved their swimming levels. Non-swimmers learned to swim, weak swimmers became strong swimmers able to snorkel, and strong swimmers learned how to dive down ten feet under the water and view sea life up close,” said Adrienne Huisman, Palm Beach County Summer Camp Coordinator.
The Big Day
The big day came on August 3. Summer camps from Palm Beach County met at Phil Foster Park in Riviera Beach. The Boynton Beach kids snorkeled off-shore at an area just off of Boynton Beach. Abernathy and Volker came out in full force – complete with about ten volunteers and gear for the children to use. The volunteers were all diving instructors and each had a group of kids to take under the Blue Heron Bridge.
The children saw fish, octopus, starfish, and seahorses, among other marine life. The campers all loved the experience and were, of course, sad when it was time to leave. The good thing, though, is that Project Seahorse will be back next year to teach new campers the skill of snorkeling. The children who learned this year can act as mentors for the kids next year.
West Boynton Teen Camp Director Cameron Morris added, “my teens loved the day we snorkeled in the ocean. They wanted more time and were asking if we were going to be able to go next summer.”
More exciting, in summer of 2016, Project Seahorse may be bigger and better – with two days of snorkeling instead of one!
The Phil Foster Park Artificial Reef and Snorkel Trail was completed in August 2012 and is the result of a partnership between Palm Beach County’s Parks and Recreation Department and Department of Environmental Resources Management.
For information about summer camp programs available through the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, visit http://www.pbcgov.com/parks/summercamps.