Oatland Island Wildlife Center
The folks at Oatland Island, which is run by the local public school system, are old hands at summer camps, and continue to run one of the most expansive nature-based programs in the region.
Always impressive, Oatland's K-8, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. summer camps have only become larger and more impressive in scope. Beginning June 17, the week-by-week lineup continues through the first week in August and includes segmented, themed weeks with names like The Mad Scientist, Journey to the Stars, Survivor, and Fundamentals of Beekeeping.
"I'd say we've easily doubled our offerings in the past ten years or so," says Pam Hewatt of Oatland Island. "We really make an effort to serve as many kids as possible."
However, Pam urges parents to quickly sign up this year due to the school board's recent tweaking of the calendar, resulting in a bit less summer this summer.
"Because of the shorter summer schedule we have six weeks of camps instead of the usual eight or so," says Hewatt. "So we urge parents to hurry up and register."
University of Georgia Marine Education Center and Aquarium
No other entity in the area offers a summer camp with such solid scientific credentials as the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service's Marine Education Center and Aquarium (MECA) at Skidaway Island. Their camps for ages 4-14 make full use of a fleet of honest-to-goodness research vessels as well as the Aquarium and touch tank facilities at MECA.
"We take them out to Ossabaw Island, we trawl in the estuary," says Anne Lindsay, Marine Educator and Summer Camp Director. "It's all very boat-based."
That said, UGA's MECA also makes full use of their land-based facilities on the salt marsh of Skidaway, which include two miles of trails, the Aquarium and touch tanks, and lab quarters.
"We take long look at the communities of phytoplankton attached to the dock. The kids help feeding the animals in the touch tanks, and the older kids will actually assist with the Aquarium itself," says Lindsay. "We do a little of the standard dissection stuff, and we have full-fledged plankton and invertebrate labs."
Overall, Lindsay says, UGA MECA offers "a sampler of all the concepts you'll find in the enormous field of marine science and technology."
For those wanting a real outdoor immersion experience – in all senses of the word "immersion" – families might try the summer programs at Sea Kayak Georgia on Tybee Island.
"Paddlesport is becoming a big focus, and we include kayaking and paddleboarding within the program," says Marsha Henson, one of the owners. "We teach fitness for the on-the-water lifestyle, and while outside we want to share the amazingness of our coastal setting."
In addition to boarding and kayaking skills, kids learn about charts, tides, and "understand how the marsh is formed and the keystone role it plays in the environment," says Henson. "And when you're in the watercraft, you really feel like you're part of that environment."
Depending on tides, the trips involve paddles up Chimney Creek, on the Back River, and almost always involve crossing over to Little Tybee.
"The reason we do a full day of activity instead of a short session is it teaches children how to really be an outdoors person. You really learn what to do to sustain yourself, to keep yourself happy, during an entire day outside," explains Henson.
"Kids just don't get enough of that experience anymore, with iPhones and iPads and all the rest. This is full immersion into sport and environment, full of salt and sun."
Savannah Canoe and Kayak
"Sea Sprouts" is a program for 8-12 year-olds with four-hour sessions "to promote safety on the waterfront and based around kayaking," says Nigel Law, owner/operator. "It's about confidence building and safety on the water, wrapped in a lot of games and general buffoonery," he laughs.
The program is based at the scenic and accessible Skidaway Narrows, specifically the Rodney Hall Landing at the foot of the Skidaway Bridge (often known simply as "Butterbean Beach).
"The currents aren't quite as strong there, and you're a little more protected. It's a no-wake zone," says Law. "It's got a nice little beach area there where we spend time doing exercises and games, getting familiar with the boats and how they work. Then without too much trouble we can launch and get away and soon be immersed in a nice faraway place without actually being far away."
Moon River Kayak
Capt. Mike Neal at Moon River Kayak/Bull River Cruises doesn't run summer programs per se, but does run plenty of tours on the water geared specifically to families. Kayak tours leave from the Hall Landing ("Butterbean Beach) at Skidaway Narrows.
"The tours are at a beautiful location with a state park and historic site right there. It's a better location and can really enjoy it," says Neal.
For those who want a more independent family paddle, Neal rents kayaks out of Hogan's Marina on Turner's Creek near Wilmington Island. Turner's Creek isn't most people's first guess for a kayaking spot, but as Neal points out: "The way traffic to Tybee gets on weekends I don't know why any local person goes to the beach anymore, especially on a holiday weekend."
Neal also has two tour boats, a big one and a little one, also based on Turner's Creek. "On the bigger boat we can pull the trawl net, and that's a huge bonus for families," he says of the big net, from which everything is thrown back into the sea. "It changes everything. People talk about how great it is to see the dolphins, but when you interview people after the trip, the kids almost always say the trawling was the best part."