Kids Sea Camp 'Take 14'
By Carolyn Pascal-Guarino
Thanksgiving with a South Seas Twist
With four hours left on our flight from Orlando to Los Angeles, we have a long stretch of travel time ahead before our bare feet touch the sandy shores of Castaway Island in Fiji. It will be worth it. When our group of weary travelers arrived last year for our untraditional Thanksgiving break, our cares were cast aside as we crossed the international dateline. When dozens of Fijians harmonize a big 'bula' welcome as we disembark from our boat transfer, jet lag no longer applies. We're in an alternate universe and the real world is a day behind. Our world for the week is Kids Sea Camp; a magical brew that once ingested may very well change life as you know it. It certainly did ours.
It was almost eight years ago, and I was publisher of Sport Diver at the time. I loved my job, but didn't love leaving my six-year-old daughter Melissa at home when I traveled. I met Margo, who owned her own dive travel company, and who was equally torn by two young children named Robbie and Jen. How can we continue to romp around the world diving and experiencing exotic locales, when what we really want to do is introduce the next generation to our passionate pursuits? Margo credits that conversation as the moment that Kids Sea Camp was conceived. It was just ocean-side chit-chat, but she took it to heart and never looked back.
She started with one week in Curacao, and now Kids Sea Camp hosts weeks at Buddy Dive, Bonaire; Cobalt Coast/Dive Tech in Grand Cayman; Roatan's Anthony's Key Resort and Castaway Island in Fiji. Grand Bahama, the Galapagos, Costa Rica and other select locations are also in the works.
Anticipation of these trips is right up there with their birthdays, and coincidentally Melissa is going on 15 for both.
Ever wonder how to keep teens wanting more family time instead of less? Just add water: Kids Sea Camp makes it cool to travel with the family and be with kids their own age. Sometimes it feels like parallel vacations, but we still get to say good morning and goodnight, and occasionally something in between. The cool thing about older kids is that they dress, eat, apply sunscreen and entertain themselves.
I can't imagine a summer when Melissa will feel too old for Kids Sea Camp. She's gone from the PADI Discover Snorkeling SASY (Supplied Air Snorkeling for Youth) program for kids five-years-old or older on up through the PADI Seal Team classes for eight- to 10-year-olds. She got her junior open water certification at 10 and her adventure diver certification at 13. Other specialty certifications including photography, night diving, and fish ID all lead up to an advanced diver certification.
These kids get the very best in PADI instruction thanks to Margo's careful selection of locations and attention to detail behind the scenes. On the surface, however The Kids Sea Camp formula is simple: A structured family holiday where the kids are introduced to diving instead of baby sitters; where guilt-free parents hop on two-tank morning boat dives, and have the afternoons for "whatever time." Margo calls it "time together and time apart." Many Kids Sea Camp regulars call it magic. Part of the magic formula is choosing dive resort partners that make it impossible to pick a favorite. So don't ask me; I truly couldn't answer. I could, however, tell you what I love most about each location.
I love proprietor Arie at Cobalt Coast Resort tapping his tambourine while the kids compete at a limbo contest after dinner. I love Dive Tech owners Nancy & Jay, jumping into the pool to help construct a pirate ship out of PVC pipes. I love setting turtles free, cruising around the reef on scooters, and family day at Sting Ray City. Just when you think that you've 'been there', Kids Sea Camp will show you a whole new side to Grand Cayman.
Roatan Anthony's Key Resort was one of the first and is still one of the very best dive resorts in the world, and I knew that for years before I stepped foot in one of their thatch-roofed bungalows. With very high expectations, we arrived in Roatan to the stunning views of Anthony's Key from the patio restaurant. You don't need to fly half-way around the world to find a lush tropical island retreat. It's right here, off the Honduras mainland in the Bay Islands. I love the dolphins and the fact that Kids Sea Campers get quality time with these magnificent mammals on a daily basis. I loved the great green adventure of zip- lining through the tree-tops on a canopy tour, horseback riding on the beach and shark diving on the reef.
After dozens of visits to Bonaire, truly a divers' paradise as they claim; I saw it through new eyes while traveling with eight-year-old Austin. Tucking him in every night and hearing him proclaim, "This was the best day of my life" said it all. From fish identification classes with real live fish, to learning what it takes to be a PADI Seal Team diver, Austin never realized how much learning was hiding in all that fun. Watching the sun set on pizza and movie night and blow carting his way around a windswept track were topside highlights. Every diver loves Bonaire and Buddy Dive Resort. Austin also fell in love with his instructor Tina and her green Shrek diving cap!
We have been at Castaway Island for three days now and you can't tell the repeaters from the first timers. We have all melded together into one harmonious set of friendly families. "Like-minded" is how Andy from New Jersey explains the connection. No matter where in the world we have come from, we have similar interests and family values. "I hate group trips" she states during one of our cappuccino-induced conversations. "This is the perfect group trip for people who hate group trips!" There is a schedule if you want one and no schedule if you don't. You can dive, snorkel, be a tourist, or not.
You can make new friends, hang with family, or sneak off to the other end of the island all by yourself. The Fiji experience is bigger than the sum of its parts, but if I had to use just two words, it would be: The people. Fijians are a very special breed, unlike any other. They are beautiful people inside and out. They are brought up with a purity of spirit that they share generously. Fijians are very proud of their culture and traditions and when they entertain it is from the heart. When they sing, they are offering you a gift. When they dance, they do so with abandon. And when they prepare their bowl of kava in the evenings, imbibe at your own risk. Kava is a local root that is massaged into liquid in a large wooden bowl. With the addition of a small amount of water, this brown beverage is known to numb the mouth and the senses. With one small cup, it is also their way of welcoming you into their world.
Their sincerity and good nature is contagious. Before the end of the week, Kids Sea Camp, Alan (aka Santa) and others have donated school supplies and funds to install a water pump on neighboring Shell Island. Dozens of loaves of bread were handed out to the staff when Etty learned that Fijians considered it a special blessing. A few of the teen divers got together and began videotaping a documentary on marine conservation complete with interviews on what we thought kids could do to make a difference.
The vacationing doctors got together and took the time to offer physical exams to the Fijian staff. And most nights, Tom and others jammed with the local musicians.
One of the highlights is when Ron Steven, aka Rogest, guest host, artist, comedian, and one of a kind charitable soul, works with the kids on a painting project with a marine conservation message. At the end of the week, each child presents their finished piece of artwork to the group and tells their story. These paintings are hung in a prominent place at home, a daily reminder of our special experience. Ron has also become quite the auctioneer, raising thousands of dollars for local children and ocean conservation projects.
The parents are encouraged to express themselves via a poetry contest, also held on Friday's family day. By this time, just about every family has decided which Kids Sea Camp they will connect at next. Many times it's the kids that drive the deciding vote, and they'll spend the coming months texting in anticipation of their next rendezvous. For some families this is their one big trip of the year, and for others it is a pre-arranged stop on a grand world tour. Either way, diving is a great common denominator.
There is also a comfort level in being a repeat visitor, of knowing what to expect and when. Last year the teens were timid about doing their first shark dive at Supermarket; this year they were competing for who saw the most sharks. I looked forward to revisiting the signature blue starfish, curled-up octopus, regal lionfish and fun-loving clownfish.
But mostly I like just getting wet, kicking back, and knowing that another year has passed and we are all very lucky to be together again.
When I wrote my first article on Kids Sea Camp several years ago, I titled it "Time in a Bottle" after the old Jim Croce song. I had such a strong feeling about capturing those fleeting kids sea camp moments. Now I know that those special times are fortunately repeatable, ever evolving, and always memorable. Fourteen Kids Sea Camps later, I am just one of the many families wrapping up another wonderful week by exchanging e-mail addresses, hugs and a "See you next Thanksgiving."