Project Seahorse: 150 Palm Beach County kids learn to swim, snorkel under Blue Heron Bridge

Courtesy: Dan Volker, Jim Abernathy

The Idea

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.

projectseahorse-bhb-52Above 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.

projectseahorse-bhb-13The 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

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Palm Beach County Lifeguards Travel to Daytona Beach for National Competition

It’s a three-day competition Palm Beach County Lifeguards train for year-round – the United States Lifesaving Association’s Nationals. This year, PBC Ocean Rescue sent eight of its best Lifesavers to run, lift and swim their way to the prize at this year’s USLA Nationals in Daytona Beach.

On August 6th thru 8th, the eight PBC Ocean Rescue members joined about a thousand competitors from around the nation work with specialized equipment in both open- and age-group competitions to show off their ocean rescue skills. This year’s events included American and International Iron Man and Woman, Run-Swim-Run, Taplin Relay, Landline Rescue, and others; one or more PBC Ocean Rescue team members entered in 12 of the 14 events.

Among the 49 teams who competed, PBC Ocean Rescue placed DSC_3036 copy-USLA-1-228th – a feat they still remain proud of, as this year, the team was smaller than in previous years. “We’re really proud of how our small but mighty team did this year,” said North County Training Officer Rob Rogerson.  In past years, Palm Beach County has had the honor of placing first in nationals– two times.

According to Steve Kaes, South County Ocean Rescue Training Officer and a competitor, one of the biggest rewards from this competition is the teambuilding it encourages among members. North and South County Ocean Rescue members don’t often get the chance to work together, so this event gives them the opportunity to get to know their fellow lifeguards and work with them, moving 300-pound boats and lifting 50-pound surf skis, among other tasks.

However, perhaps the most important goal of this competition is what every Ocean Rescue member strives to do – help save lives. Training for the USLA local, regional and national competitions ensure the lifeguards are always in top shape when duty calls. The events serve as an exhibition of skills for the competitors, and while the specialized equipment used for the events would not necessarily be used for real-life rescues, working with the higher-grade equipment does allow for more specialized knowledge and increased expertise when working with actual lifesaving equipment.

Nautica2015USLA_083The competitors volunteer their time and pay entry fees to compete; Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue is proud of all its competitors this year.

Congratulations to Tiffany LaCasse, who teamed with Jen Noonan of Pompano Beach Patrol to place third in the women’s Open Surf Rowing Final, the overall best rating for PBC Ocean Rescue at this year’s competition.

Also, congratulations to Tiffany LaCasse and Keshia Pinault, who teamed with two guards from other agencies and placed 13th in the women’s Taplin Relay Finals; to Chase Robertson and Keshia Pinault who competed in International Ironman, Surf Ski, Paddleboard, and Run-Swim-Run, and just missed the finals for those competitions; to Tom O’Connor, who placed high in the semi-final in Swim and Run-Swim-Run; to Steve Kaes, Keisha Pinalt, Russ Geweiler and Tom O’Connor, who were in the se
mi-finals in the Line Pull; to Steve Kaes and Russ Geweiler, who were in the semi-finals in the Open Men’s Row; and to Steve Kaes, Rob Rogerson and Dan Barnickel, who competed with distinction in multiple age group events including: Doubles Row, Rescue Race, Surf Swim, Rescue Board, Run-Swim-Run, Surf Ski, Taplin Relay; and International and American Ironman.

“We learned so much from this event. Rules and equipment standards have changed.Nautica2015USLA_015 So have many race strategies and tactics. With the new equipment we have ordered and budgeted combined with knowledge of our veterans and the enthusiastic younger guards, we expect many more of our department’s guards to join next year’s competition team. Our USLA PBC Chapter fundraisers raised enough in donations to reimburse $150 to each competitor to help offset travel costs and entry fees. We hope to do even better next year,” said Rogerson, who calls this year’s team a “young and growing team.”

On October 27th, PBC Ocean Rescue members will have the opportunity to compete in the Peanut Island Row and Paddle Race. Spectators can cheer from the sidelines as the competitors make their way around the Island.

Photo credit: Candi LaCasse

Gramercy Park Officially Opens with Community Celebration

OnGramercy-Park-Ribbon-Cutting Saturday, August 15, District 7 Commissioner Priscilla Taylor and Palm Beach County officials joined with Gramercy Park residents to celebrate the grand opening of Gramercy Park with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, community get-together, and barbecue. A local DJ entertained the residents while the children hopped to the beats in a bounce house and enjoyed their new playground. Former District 7 Commissioner Addie Greene, the visionary of the park, was in attendance and the Sheriff’s Police Athletic League gave tennis demonstrations to dozens of excited children and adults.

“Providing for youth enrichment, trails, and open space are essential services of our Parks and Recreation Department,” said Commissioner Taylor. “Gramercy Park will have a positive impact on children and adults of all ages in this community.”

GramercyGramercy-Park-Junior-Tennis Park is the county’s newest neighborhood park and is located at 5615 Parke Avenue in West Palm Beach. The 1.89-acre park includes three junior tennis courts, two age-appropriate children’s play areas featuring a slide, climbing structures, and an ADA-accessible Omnispinner designed for collaborative play. The park also includes a .12-mile walking trail, an open grass play field, benches, and a bicycle rack. Future plans include a community center building.

Gramercy Park was developed by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department in partnership with the Office of Community Revitalization, and the Gramercy Park community, as part of the Countywide Community Revitalization Team (CCRT) in response to the surrounding community’s request for a safer place for youth to play.

Fullerton Island Officially Opens in Jupiter

Fullerton Island ribbon-cutting
(front row) SFWMD Governing Board Member Melanie Peterson, Jupiter Councilmember Todd Wodraska, Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal R. Valeche, Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana, Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka, Parks and Recreation Director Eric Call, FDOT Environmental Scientist David Bogardus; (backrow). FIND Commissioner Charles Isiminger, Environmental Resources Management Director Rob Robbins, County Administrator Bob Weisman, Former Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus.

On Monday, June 8, District I Commissioner Hal Valeche hosted the grand opening of Palm Beach County’s latest restoration project, the 12-acre Fullerton Island, located in the Town of Jupiter. Commissioner Valeche was joined by Palm Beach County Mayor Shelley Vana, Jupiter Mayor Karen Golonka, Parks and Recreation Director Eric Call, and other state and local partners, to officially open the public-use facilities at the recently-restored Fullerton Island. More than 50 attendees enjoyed a brief boat ride across the Intracoastal Waterway to the island for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The island features public-use amenities which include picnic tables, a shade shelter, an informational kiosk, and a six-slip, day-use dock. On the island, 5.12 acres of mangrove habitat was preserved, 0.54 acres of mangrove and 4.23 acres of seagrass habitat was created, 1.07 acres of upland hardwood hammock infested with invasive nonnative vegetation was restored, and an additional 0.30 acres of hammock habitat was created.

Funding partners include Palm Beach County, the Town of Jupiter, Florida Inland Navigation District, Florida Department of Transportation, and South Florida Water Management District. View the Project Fact Sheet:

See more photos in our Facebook album.

FIND check presentation
Florida Inland Navigation District Commissioner Charles Isiminger and Assistant Executive Director Janet Zimmerman, presented a check for $794,030 for the Fullerton Island Restoration Project to County Commissioner Hal R. Valeche.

Nine Miles of Equestrian Trails Officially Open in Okeeheelee Park

exploring the trail system on horseback
County officials joined together with the local horse community to officially open more than 9 miles of equestrian trails in Okeeheelee Park on Sunday, May 31.

On Sunday, May 31, Palm Beach County officially opened more than nine miles of new equestrian trails in Okeeheelee Park South with an early morning ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by Commissioner Paulette Burdick. Among the nearly 100 attendees were about 50 who participated in the event on horseback.

“Palm Beach County has historically been an agricultural and equestrian community, and this project furthers our commitment to support our history and to provide top-notch horseback riding experiences for local equestrian enthusiasts,” said Commissioner Burdick.

Development of the trails included extensive removal of exotic vegetation. The resulting scenic system of equestrian trails offers equestrians a unique opportunity to experience nine distinct local ecosystems: basin marsh, depression marsh, dome swamp, hydric hammock, lakes and ponds, mesic flatwoods, prairie hammock, wet flatwoods, and wet prairie.

“This restoration project eliminates intrusive exotics and also preserves and enhances nine different ecosystems that our children and our grandchildren can learn about and enjoy,” said Commissioner Burdick.

Conceptual Master Plan - Okeeheele Park South
Conceptual Master Plan – Okeeheele Park South

Joining the commissioner were Parks and Recreation Director Eric Call and Peggy Kovacs, an original member of the former Okeeheelee Park Citizens Advisory Committee who served alongside Dr. Jim Brandon, for whom the Equestrian Center is named. Following the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Commissioner Burdick aboard a Palomino named Sonny led the inaugural ride through the new trails.

The park’s master plan includes additional hiking and biking trails, which are well underway, and a canoe/kayak launch. Additional amenities include a playground, restrooms, and picnic facilities.

Okeeheelee Park and Jim Brandon Equestrian Center are operated by the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department. The trails are open daily from sunrise to one hour before sunset. There is no charge to use the trails. Visitors are advised to adhere to the posted rules. View the photo album on Facebook.

For more recreational opportunities available through the Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation Department, visit

Regular inspections by certified team ensure kids of all ages play safely

A special, award-winning Parks Division team certified as Playground Safety Inspectors by the National Playground Safety Institute of the National Recreation and Parks Association has the challenging job of inspecting 154 playgrounds at 101 park sites each year. This unique group is re-certified by the National Recreation and Parks Association every three years.

DSCF0311What are they looking for? Sharp edges and protruding bolt ends, loose bolts, worn parts, broken or missing rails, steps, rungs or seats–to name only a few safety hazards. Aesthetics are also thoroughly evaluated. Necessary repairs are documented and often made on the spot. And this team works efficiently:  they closely examine older or damaged equipment that’s been removed from our parks and recycle parts that are still in good working order. New playgrounds are costly, yet many of our popular sites average 18-20 years in age thanks to the efforts of this specialized crew.

“The playground equipment is always in good condition and the play areas are always clean!” said an appreciative park patron.

This same valuable and skilled team of inspectors also conduct regular inspections of our fitness trails and the Skate Park at West Boynton Park. The special reward for this important Safety Inspection Team is the opportunity to see kids playing and having fun–safely.

Palm Beach County Ocean Rescue: Lifesaving and Marine Safety for 46 Years

One hundred and six certified Ocean Rescue lifeguards provide drowning prevention, rescue, and emergency medical services at fourteen scenic, world-renowned oceanfront and inlet beach parks. The waters along our shores are dynamic as well as beautiful, and rapidly changing conditions call for unique training, specialized skills, and considerable athletic ability.

Rip currents pose a hidden danger here in South Florida. Local swimmers are grateful for the proven skills of Ocean Rescue Lifeguards such as Chase Robertson.

To be considered for an Ocean Rescue Lifeguard position, applicants are required to have a current American Red Cross Lifeguard and CPR/AED certificate. Applicants also participate in a run-swim-run test and are tested on their rescue and medical skills. Only then are they formally interviewed and considered for an Ocean Lifeguard position.

Many lifeguards are also SCUBA certified, licensed boat captains, and certified boat operators for rescue boats or Rescue Water Crafts (RWC).

New recruits are required to participate in an 80-hour Ocean Rescue Trainee Academy. The Academy introduces new lifeguards to vigorous and stringent Palm Beach County policies, procedures, rescue techniques, and patient care protocols. Academy graduates become certified as Emergency Medical Response Workers (EMR), training that surpasses the requirements of American Red Cross Lifeguard certification. Members of our Ocean Rescue staff are uniquely qualified and authorized to provide this important EMR training through an agreement, renewed this past year, with the State of Florida Department of Health’s Bureau of Emergency Medical Services.

Palm Beach County’s Ocean Rescue team is of the highest professional caliber. It is well worth noting that the majority of our team are certified as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), a step above EMR certification. Ocean Rescue lifeguards have reached over 9,000 participants a year in their public education events.

As a United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) Certified Agency, our Ocean Rescue team members are also authorized to provide training for individual Palm Beach County Open Water Lifeguard certification.

“Ocean Rescue is about team unity,” says North County District Supervisor Julia Leo with pride. “The lifeguards train hard to work seamlessly together in life and death situations—they’re always focused on public safety and the welfare of our park patrons. It’s a great feeling when tragedy is averted and a life is saved because everyone worked together as a team.”

“Ocean Rescue has evolved and grown to keep pace with its rapidly changing environment,” agreed Ocean Rescue Captain Rick Welch. “Each of us brings his or her strengths to create a really exceptional public safety team. I’m privileged to be a part of it.”

“I hope this camp is around when I have kids!”

“I hope this camp is around when I have kids!” wrote a teen. Summer Camp went so smoothly this summer, reported Recreation Programs Coordinator Adrienne Huisman. “We had new staff who brought in new energy, and we had returning staff who brought structure, stability, and routine.”

Summer Camp ended with a Tea Party at Westgate Recreation Center. Who had more fun—campers or parents? We couldn’t tell!

What do we say to a disappointed 15-year-old who is aging out of summer teen camp?
If they’re responsible kids who consistently support fellow campers and their counselors, we invite them to consider applying for our volunteer Jr. Internship program.

“Our Jr. Interns add a sparkle to camp with their youthful energy and desire to learn,” says Huisman. They provide a positive role model that is in between the age of campers and the counselors, so Jr. Interns are expected to meet the highest standards of behavior and character.

Jr. Internships are win-win. This unpaid position is often a teen’s first real job experience, and it counts towards the service hours now required by most schools for graduation. Interested teens are expected to complete their applications and will experience formal interviews. Once selected, Jr. Interns provide camp counselors with much needed supervisory backup and help with errands, such as picking up the camp shirt that was left behind or grabbing the lunch the camper forgot. Jr. Interns also receive coaching from their counselors and, by the end of the summer, will have planned and implemented a recreation module for campers. And it’s a logical progression:  the successful and experienced Jr. Intern is encouraged to apply and interview for a paid position as a Summer Camp Counselor.

Jr. Intern Hannah Tannone

Jr. Intern Hannah Tannone assisted Adrienne Huisman with paperwork and a variety of projects throughout the summer. She also planned and implemented a volleyball module for campers. She’s been attending summer camps operated by Palm Beach County Parks and Recreation since she was 7.

Jr. Interns Courtney Robinson and Andelina Noel

Courtney Robinson and Andelina Noel were Jr. Interns at West Boynton Recreation Center. “Every single day I come here there are favorite moments,” declared Andelina who hopes to one day become a pediatrician. Both really enjoyed interacting with the campers. She and Courtney found the staff training helpful that was provided before the summer got underway. “They told us how to help kids with ADHD and that training really worked. We had some kids like that and we used the techniques they taught us. It really worked—it was just amazing!”

Jr. Interns Amanda Teague and Amelia Newell

Amanda Teague and Amelia Newell, Jr. Interns at West Jupiter Recreation Center, assisted with camper supervision and ran errands for camp counselors. They also assisted with the planning of a talent show for parents. They designed the set, handled cue cards, and emceed the special show that starred campers and counselors. “This camp is not just a camp,” insists Amanda. “It’s family.”

Faris Matthews has been participating in programs at Westgate Recreation Center since he was in 3rd grade. This summer, as a Jr. Intern, he was able to step in and coach basketball when the need unexpectedly arose. “I just try to help the kids be more than what people see them as,” he explained. “I want them to have a place where they can be themselves and don’t have to worry about anything.” Not surprisingly, his team took Second Place.