MACHIAS, Maine — On a Down East pier, six teens are lying in a row on their bellies, faces so close to the water that occasionally their noses get wet. Their arms reach into the salt water, feeling for marine life: sea squirts, anemones, barnacles.
“Do you see those strands that look like fuzzy seaweed?” an instructor asks. “Those are actually animals.”
The teenagers had just disembarked from a whale watching trip in Passamaquoddy Bay, where they learned about and photographed minke whales, eagles, gray and harbor seals and flocks of seabirds.
The youths are elbow-deep in their study subject: marine biology and the environment.
Dipping her head close to the tidal pool, one 14-year-old whispers, “That is so cool.”
And despite the designer sunglasses, the sequined jeans and the high-end sneakers, this is MESSY camp at the University of Maine at Machias. Founded four years ago, MESSY, or Maine Environmental Summer Session for Youth, offers a rigorous marine education curriculum aimed at students in grades six through 12.
The week of field trips, experiments and projects is designed to teach summer campers about 21st century environmental challenges, help them create their own solutions for real-world problems and encourage them to become better stewards of the environment.
Dr. Gayle Kraus, a professor of marine ecology at UMM who has been trained to assist in marine mammal strandings, is one of the camp’s leaders.
“We began the camp basically to stimulate an interest in the natural environment and to get kids thinking about environmental issues at an early age,” Kraus said recently. “This is serious work at MESSY. It’s an introduction to science and what the kids are learning is just a little watered down from what I teach my college students.”
But don’t get the wrong idea about this serious work — laughter abounds, movies and recreational events happen daily — as the team of teachers balanced learning and fun by the sea. The effort must be succeeding, as most of this year’s attendees have returned summer after summer, some for all four years.
“This is the best and only camp I actually want to be at,” one returning teen commented during the July 22-27 camp. “Every year we see unique and new places,” another added. “We see things we have never seen before and get to touch things, like whale bones, that normal people might not be able to touch.”
The idea for MESSY was hatched by UMM President Cynthia Huggins and enabled by an initial $10,000 Strategic Investment Grant from the University of Maine System. The goals originally were to build name recognition for UMM as the only public environmental liberal arts college in the Northeast and to encourage teens to attend college by exposing them to campus life and work. Huggins said the camp fulfills UMM’s mission of preparing students for sustainable environmental stewardship.
On one recent camp day out on the Lady H — a 37-foot lobster boat piloted by Capt. Butch Harris — Passamaquoddy Bay revealed a bounty of scientific learning and prompted the teens to break into an impromptu version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” During the outing, the teenagers took water samples both in the bay and near the city of Eastport that were then examined later in the day back at the university. “This will tell us what the whales are eating and what the food the whales are eating is eating,” Kraus said.
The next day, the teenagers bent close over a pile of bones, feeling the ridges and contours of various kinds of whales, as well as learning the skeletal differences between birds, cats and humans. Questions and answers flew as the teens became more engaged in the topic.
There wasn’t a question the students posed that instructor and MESSY co-manager Tora Johnson was unable to answer. Johnson teaches computer mapping and marine studies at UMM and is an adjunct faculty member at College of the Atlantic, Massachusetts Maritime Academy and Cape Cod Community College, as well as the author of “Entanglements,” which documents and explores whale-human interaction.
“We expect the campers to come and have fun in a loosely structured environment, but at the same time [we] expect [them] to experience a college milieu such as dorm life, research activities,” she said. “We are hoping that these experiences will enhance collegiate aspirations.’’
Johnson said that many colleges have summer camp programs but that UMM’s MESSY camp is very unique because of its broadly interdisciplinary nature. “It is place-based and community-connected,” she said, which mirrors UMM’s mission.
Using the sea, the beaches and the intertidal zones as classrooms is the way UMM already works, she said. “We have faculty that are not just squawking at the head of the class. They are involved and doing work within the larger community. The hope of MESSY is to inspire students to continue with this engagement.”
MESSY is a wonderful base for a student interested in marine or environmental careers — and Kraus said there are plenty of them.
“There are great opportunities in veterinary careers, with fish hatcheries, as naturalists, whale watchers, Sea World-type jobs, fish and aquaculture jobs, teaching — especially on the high school level — and working with private companies doing environmental assessments,” she said.