Members of Park Rapids Boy Scout Troop 58 were disappointed last year when they had to postpone a long-planned summer trip to the Florida Sea Base due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This summer, the trip went forward for six Scouts and two adult leaders. Meeting via Zoom, several of them shared their memories of diving off Islamorada in the Florida Keys.
“We didn’t earn any badges,” Eagle Scout Jacob Zinniel said, contrasting the trip with other camp experiences that focus on learning badge-related skills. “It was kind of a Scout vacation.”
“One hundred percent fun,” said Scoutmaster David “PeeWee” Zinniel.
Troop members traveled Aug. 3-13, flying from the Twin Cities to Fort Lauderdale and driving down to the Keys.
Running with dolphins
On the way back from one of their last dives, Jacob recalled, the boat captain slowed down when he saw dolphins. “The instant that he slowed down, they were jumping the wake for about five minutes,” he said. “That was kind of the coolest thing we did. We just kept going straight, and they would jump and then swim back and then jump out again.”
“The dolphins were incredible,” agreed Scout Jacob Lof.
PeeWee said he was impressed that the captain knew exactly what the dolphins were going to do when they started leaving a big wake.
Turtles, sharks and rays, oh my
During seven days of the trip, the Scouts went on 11 dives, mainly on reefs, including one night dive on which they saw a bunch of turtles, Jacob Zinniel said. “That was really cool.”
He also recalled having nurse sharks swim up to them and circle them during daytime dives.
Eagle Scout Kiergon Wilkins said his fondest memory of the trip was seeing three or four stingrays.
“This one was huge, and we got to see it burrow in the sand,” Wilkins said.
Guiding them on most of the dives was a diving professional whom everyone called Mama J, and who had been on more than 4,300 dives.
“She was really good,” said Jacob Zinniel. “She knew a lot.” He said she taught them everything about SCUBA diving, and remembered following her pink flippers.
PeeWee said this started with burning the mask – using a torch to burn a film off their diving masks, so they wouldn’t fog up.
“Her steak that we had at her house in Key Largo was some of the best steak I’ve ever had,” Lof added.
Best night ever
One of Eagle Scout Owen Wagner’s favorite moments on the trip was when a big female manatee, known to Sea Base staff as Maxine, came into the marina and Mama J started pouring water from her canteen onto the water.
“She came up and started drinking from it,” said Wagner. “Everybody started grabbing their water bottles and pouring it so that Maxine would drink the fresh water. You could reach down and pet her on the nose or watch her swim around the marina. She was there for probably 20, 30 minutes.”
Wagner was also fascinated with the nightly lightning storms they could see off to the north. “It was very weird to me that it was there every single night,” he said. “And it was so beautiful and calm down there. You could see billions of stars straight above you.”
He also recalled swimming over a reef covered with conch shells as big as his head. “That was a really cool dive for me,” he said.
PeeWee said Wagner announced after the night dive, “I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life,” while Jacob Zinniel called it “the best night I’ve ever had.”
Not like other Scout camps
Lof said the camp didn’t feel like other Scout camps, and the leaders didn’t feel like Boy Scout leaders. “They felt like you were there for fun,” he said, “and it just happened to be a Boy Scout trip.”
PeeWee noted the Sea Base is staffed by professionals, as opposed to other Scouting camps where older teens often teach badge skills to the younger Scouts.
He remarked to a member of the Sea Base staff that they didn’t have much acreage for a Scouting camp. “He just turned around and said, ‘There’s our camp, in the ocean.’ That’s why it didn’t feel like a camp,” said PeeWee.
Lof said one of the things he learned from the trip was not to become so caught up in the technicalities of diving that you forget to enjoy the beauty. “I struggled a little bit with that toward the beginning, and it got better toward the end,” he said.
Besides diving at the Sea Base, the group also visited the History of Diving Museum, Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West and the southernmost point in the Continental U.S.
PeeWee described their airboat ride in the Everglades as a disappointing, mosquito-plagued experience. “We saw two blue herons,” he said, “and an egret, and that’s about it.”
However, Lof said, “It was really nice to see a new place with people that are different from people up here. It was a really fun place, somewhere that I’d like to go again, down the road.”