“What a difference,” said Sheryl Gilmore of her students: “kids that want to be here.” She was talking about kids from 12 to 18 who are so determined to be marine scientists they get recommendations from their science teachers and talk their parents into letting them try it out by attending a one- or two-week summer course at the Acadia Institute of Oceanography.

Most kids don’t have the advantage of trying out their field of interest before heading off to college. A change of mind can be expensive and frustrating. But future marine scientists have an unusual opportunity in this combination summer school and camp set in one of the loveliest and oceanographically interesting areas of Maine: Mount Desert Island, home to the East Coast’s only natural glacial fjord, Somes Sound.

Each summer from mid-June to mid-August, Sherry and husband H. James Gilmore and their staff of classroom teachers, practicing scientists and researchers with advanced degrees introduce about 150 students in 42-student sessions to the science of oceanography. Each session has a student to staff ratio of 4:1.

“It’s a hands-on field program,” Gilmore said. She and her staff show the students how scientists study the ocean. Students spend most of the time on boats, in tidal pools, beaches and salt marshes. “They set up a salt water tank and maintain it for two weeks,” she said, explaining, “The older kids will do work with careers in oceanography. They’re pretty serious about it.”

Enough students have proven so serious that Gilmore now offers a new 10-day career program in Florida, during Thanksgiving week. Last November they canoed the Everglades, swam with manatees and dolphins and, she said, “Got a chance to meet with marine scientists and ask questions. This November, we’re taking a nine-day trip to Belize, in Central America.” She explained that this autumn session will be for advanced students ages 15 and up and that there will be a lot of snorkeling. Maine’s water is very rich in plankton, she said, explaining that Caribbean water, with its mangroves, is different. The students will be swimming in and examining the second largest barrier reef in the world, she said, noting, “This is something we’ve added for kids who have done very well in the summer program.”

A trip to the institute last July backed up Gilmore’s remark about the kids loving what they do there. It’s a mixture of serious study and fun. A bunch of teenagers milled about the front steps of the school while waiting for a class to begin. New Yorker Candice Matthews, 14, attending for the second summer, said, between bites of Party Mix, “I would really like to save the ocean for future generations.” A boy read quietly under a tree. That morning, first-year staff member Jennifer Bennett, 25, from Colorado, had led the students on a salt marsh and bog trip where they dredged the bottom, gathered material and made tests. “Some people slipped up to their waists,” said 11-year-old New Yorker Mei Schults. It’s all part of the adventure.

Like many of the younger students, 13-year-old Lauren Olinger, of St. Petersburg, Florida, wants to be a dolphin trainer. Gilmore said, “The initial thought is, `Let’s play with dolphins,’ but very few do.” Although some people do get those jobs, including several of Gilmore’s former students, rather than having students play with dolphins, the AIO staff teaches students how to measure water quality, study beach erosion, past climates and aquaculture. Gilmore said, “A lot of parents send their kids to us so we can show them what their options are,” noting that the “options are wide-ranging if they’re open-minded.”

Although registration for this coming summer had reached the two-thirds mark by mid-March, Gilmore said there was still space available. She had 185 students last summer. “It’s a chance to study [oceanography] in a safe environment,” she said. “It’s academic, a learning environment, but not too intense.”

Pleased with the numbers of students signing up, she said, referring to the terrorist attacks of 2001, “It was tough for four or five years. In March 2002, when Bush declared war, our numbers dropped off. It was dramatic.” She said money entered into the equation — summer camp is a luxury — “but mostly,” she said, “parents told me they were afraid to let their kids travel.” Last summer, she said, was the first time the number of students had risen since 2002.

Gilmore said some families plan their summer vacations around their children’s two-week sessions at the institute. They visit Mount Desert or other parts of the coast while their children attend classes at the old Dunham School in Seal Harbor, built in 1931 by John D. Rockefeller as the island’s elementary school, and where they’re taught by Gilmore’s staff, some of whom have been at the Institute for 17 years. Gilmore said, “A lot of the staff were students of mine who then went on to college and became marine scientists.”

Bennett, the first year staff member, is one of those former students. She attended AIO ten years ago, did the basic, advanced, and the Jamaica program and loved it so much she became a marine scientist. A naturalist-at-large, she does environmental and outdoor education in California in winter and teaches at AIO in summer. To these future oceanographers, her life sounds just about perfect. q

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