The Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance, YOLO Board, and Sea Life Discovery Center are teaming up to inspire a new generation of students to experience and protect our waterways. The best way to get to know our unique, coastal ecosystems is through exploring and restoring them with two hands and two feet. With the launch of the brand new Sea Life Discovery Center (SLDC) and partnerships with YOLO Board and the Choctawhatchee Basin Alliance (CBA), students will be inspired to become coastal stewards of their unique environmental resources.
Picture this: you’re at the heart of the Florida Panhandle, balancing on a YOLO Paddleboard as the undulating waves of the gulf pass beneath you. Surrounded by other kids, you dip your own paddle beneath the surface, propelling forward towards the brand new snorkel reefs built within the shallows of Walton County’s shoreline. As part of the SLDC’s YOLO Board Discovery Series, students will learn about native, saltwater species through direct observation of fish varieties, soft corals, sea turtles and more. Diving into the emerald water, students and instructors collect small specimens for further explorations back at the lab with microscopes and more.
“The importance of experiences like YOLO boarding on spectacular coastal waters and exploring habitat created by South Walton Artificial Reef Association can dramatically expand the horizons of people, and truly change lives,” says Jeff Archer of YOLO, “We are thrilled to help transport folks to these meaningful places.”
In addition to experiencing the Gulf of Mexico and coastal dune lakes with YOLO Board, students will participate in interactive learning at the bay with CBA. Along a shallow, sandy shoreline near the 331 Bridge in Walton County, kids learn to identify native fish species they seine themselves, work with refractometers to examine salinity, and describe key ecological processes that make our bay home to so many amazing plants and animals.
“Learning a native fish species is one thing, but holding a young Mangrove Snapper or Blue Crab in their hands gives kids an elevated appreciation for the other creatures in our waterways,” says Alison McDowell, director of CBA.
Students and adults alike team up with CBA staff for regularly scheduled “voluntourism” days throughout the year. Depending on the season, volunteers build oyster reefs in the bay, gather and record marine debris along the Gulf of Mexico beaches, plant smooth cordgrass and sea oats near the coast, and so much more.
Finally, back at the lab student participants take their first-hand experience of the watershed from their time with YOLO and CBA to work through activities that illustrate symbiotic relationships, ecological niches and predator/prey behaviors in the marine science center.
Together, the unique partnership forged by YOLO Board, CBA, and the Sea Life Discovery Center will inspire a deep appreciation for the beautiful natural resources of the Florida Panhandle, and provide living examples of activities local people and visitors can do to leave this place better than we found it.