By Dan Rahn
University of Georgia
"I had no idea we would do more than just gather facts for local scientists," said Nathan Potts, one of the Glynn County, Ga., high school 4-H'ers who call themselves the Sea Monkeys. "We became the scientists."
At first, the group simply had been concerned about the water washing the St. Simons Island beaches. Health advisories had warned of enterococcal bacteria, and nobody knew where it was coming from.
So in December 2004, the 4-H'ers launched the first 280 oranges of their "Orange Tide Marshwater Tracking Study." Working with local environmental scientists, they used the floating fruit to track the flow of tidal streams.
They trailed those oranges and later launches over the following months. They combed beaches and searched from kayaks. They noted the oranges' exact locations with Global Positioning System gear secured with a grant after the project began.
Based on the group's findings, environmental scientists focused their searches and found enterococcal bacteria sources. The Sea Monkeys found an unexpected source, too: dog feces on the beaches. They mounted an intensive public education campaign to turn that "brown tide" around.
As the project progressed, awards started coming. Big awards.
* In November 2005, the group won a trip for four to the Earthwatch Conference in Cambridge, Mass. There, they were named a grand prize winner in the international Earthbound3 Challenge.
The honor includes a $12,000 award that will send Potts, Harvest Hale and Will Prince and their 4-H advisor, Robi Gray, on a research expedition in southern Spain. (Three students accepted $1,750 each in lieu of the trip.)
The 4-H'ers will live aboard a refitted Norwegian fishing vessel for two weeks in late June and early July. They'll study dolphins, whales and sea turtles in the Alboran Sea during the days and spend each night in a different port.
* In April, the Sea Monkeys took top honors in the Georgia Conservancy Youth Environmental Symposium. The award includes $2,000, a plaque and a number of T-shirts, guide books, water bottles and other prizes.
"YES is a wonderful venue for inspiring young Georgians to take action in their communities," Gray said.
* In October, four of the Sea Monkeys will go to SeaWorld Adventure Park in San Antonio, Tex. They'll be honored there as one of eight national winners in the 2006 Environmental Excellence Awards given by SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Fujifilm.
The award includes, besides the SeaWorld trip, $10,000 to expand and enhance the project; a digital camera; trophies and certificates for every student and group leader; T-shirts for school and community partners; and an environmental partnership with the National Geographic Society.
The biggest impact, though, may be where the Orange Tide project is taking the Sea Monkeys next.
Will Prince, for instance, had moved to Glynn County only a month before the 4-H project began. "He had never thought of marine biology," Gray said. "But now he wants to be a marine biologist."
Before the project, Hale planned to become a music teacher. "After the study, I realized how much fun environmental science really is," she said. "I want to study marsh ecology."
Potts, too, intends to study an environmental science and engineering. "I'd like to work in an area," he said, "where I can bridge science with other fields to solve problems."
The Sea Monkeys will go to the National 4-H Technology Leadership Conference in Lincoln, Neb., July 24-27. There, they'll use expertise they developed in the Orange Tide project to teach other 4-H'ers how to help develop community emergency evacuation maps.
"People from local and state organizations really like high schoolers getting involved and looking for solutions to community problems," Potts said. "I'm very grateful for the opportunity to help my island be a better place."
(Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)