Ecological Marine Adventures is an experience that everyone who sets foot on Topsail Island needs to have. Not only will you gain a whole new respect for the ocean, you will be so charmed by the owner’s passionate, energetic, nicest-people-ever, personalities, that you’ll probably want to be their friends too. Seriously.
WHAT IS IT?
Ecological Marine Adventures is an ocean-centered entertainment and educational center. They feature a variety of adventurous camps for kids and adults to learn all about what’s happening in the water beneath the crashing waves.
The purpose? Teach people what’s happening in the water, create interest in the creatures that call it home, and ultimately, instill in every customer a love for the ocean that extends beyond beach combing and sand castle building.
RCI spent the day with these world changers, and we unanimously came to one decision after it was all said and done: We’re hooked.
A DAY AT CAMP
Our adventure begins at 9am with our founding photographer and her camera, Rachel Carter, 2 little boys in swim trunks, water shoes, lots of sun block, and me, a work from home mom with two curious boys who have boatloads of energy. The sign is hard to miss, thankfully, and the parking lot is spacious. We grab our bags with towels, water, and snacks, and head inside to begin our adventure.
The building is decorated with a sea creature theme. Sunny teal walls feature a mural with a GIANT octopus, a shark fin (the jaws of the beast can be seen around the corner), and a school of fish. Near a row of funky conch shells, megalodon shark teeth gleam in the corner, reminding us how happy we are not to be trapped in the jaws of a shark right now!
A cheerful employee greets us and introduces herself. She is Taylor Ardis*, the Director of Marine Science and Education at EMA.
Ardis is the real deal. She studied international and environment studies at UNCW. She spends a few weeks a year helping the Smithsonian Institution tag sharks. SHARKS! Yeah. No big deal. (But a long slow whistle of admiration comes out, under my breath.)
The megalodon shark teeth on display were probably pulled out of the shark’s mouth by Taylor herself. Ya know, to alleviate a toothache in the sweet innocent beast or something. Because she’s just awesome like that. We are all super impressed by her, especially my five-year-old son. She also volunteers at the turtle hospital in her spare time, so she’s basically an ocean angel.
While we’re looking around, parents drop off eager kids. This is the third day of camp for most of them, though many are on their 3rd or 4th EMA camp this summer. They all run to the back room and grab neon yellow EMA shirts. Taylor gathers the kids on the floor in the open room behind the counter.
Each little cutie is equipped with an observation notebook. The kids range from 5-7 years old and Taylor wastes no time getting right to the stimulating stuff.
“How many major zones does the ocean have?” she asks.
Ummm…. hundreds? I don’t know…
But these little whippersnappers do! (There’s 3, by the way.)
While Taylor teaches the kids about the different types of creatures that live in each zone, a couple of energetic boys keep raising their hands and answering her questions before she even has time to finish them! One boy adds interesting facts to every piece of information she shares.
An EMA employee leans over and whispers to me that he’s been attending camp for a few years and he loves the ocean. I’m both impressed, and embarrassed. Because I didn’t know any of the things he does and I’m at least …. well, I’m older than him.
Did you know that the deeper you go in the ocean, the crazier the creatures look? The bigger their eyes get too. She has photos for the kids, and folks – they are AWESOME. And maybe a little terrifying? Though the kids are absolutely enthralled.
After the mini marine ecology lesson, the campers strap on life jackets, grab their nets, and we all stroll down the block to the pier.
Side note – for all you mamas who think it’s crazy to let a bunch of little kids cross S Shore Drive in Surf City, I totally agree! However, I am super impressed with the way they handled it. An EMA employee goes into the middle of the street and has a stop sign. When it’s all clear, the campers cross all together holding onto a rope. They use other tools, like street cones, when the groups are especially large or when they walk farther.
Miss Vanita, operator of the Surf City Pier and supporter of ocean conservation, spotted a leatherback sea turtle the day prior and everyone was hopeful we would catch a glimpse. The campers trek down the pier, oohing and aahing as pier regulars displayed their full buckets, birds swoop by, and fishermen reel up their still flopping dinner. The leatherback sea turtle was hiding from us, but I don’t think the kids even noticed. We bid the pier farewell and head to the sand.
Next, the EMA employees do something that we at RCI applaud SO HARD. As we walk down the beach, the directors instruct the kids to quickly pick up as much trash as they can. This is how they start every beach activity. It’s part of training the next generation to care for the ocean.
In a matter of minutes, every kiddo fills their hands with trash, multiple times. It is infuriating to see those sweet, innocent, chubby little children’s hands cupped full of cigarette butts thrown on the beach by careless adults.
People, we cannot say it enough: THROW AWAY YOUR TRASH!
With the dirty business out of the way, it was on to fishing! The kids all whip out their nets and follow the three camp directors into the water. Within minutes, they capture tiny silver fish and dump them into a bucket. Sometimes they take the fish back to the aquarium to observe for a few days, and sometimes they just throw them back.
Today’s harvest is just little fish, but the other campers excitedly tell about days when they caught all types of exciting sea creatures, even puffer fish and jellyfish! The directors chat with the kids about the different fish they find in the water and the kids leap and laugh in pure delight, swiping their nets through the waves, racing around to view each others catch.
This part is by far the highlight for the kids. Hands-on learning creates more than knowledge – it creates passion. That’s precisely the goal at EMA.
A couple of hours later, we head back to the storefront. With a cool outdoor shower on the side of the building, the kids are about 50% sand free and ready for more learning. They spread their towels around the main room to relax on, while they enjoy a snack from home and story time. We are worn out. But the kids? Nope. The more energy they expend, the more energy they seem to gain.
Ahhh, if only we could harness that!
After the octopus book, the kids are directed to sit upright, put their hands in their laps, and use soft voices. Much to my horror, the directors bring out a slithering snake and an iguana. I am quickly captivated with watching the brave young campers carefully touch the reptiles. The kids are absolutely impressed with both the animals and their own bravery.
Later, the iguana climbs around the counter (under close supervision) and lays out an enormous poop emoji. Seriously, it is just missing the eyes. I had no idea their excrement was so hefty. But now we all know. You’re welcome.
These critters, along with the fish and turtles, are all donations to EMA from the public.
Finally, class draws to a close with craft time. The kids gather in the open craft room and get busy creating their own sea creatures with construction paper, glue sticks, crayons, and scissors. They gleefully present their creations to each other as parents begin to arrive.
VERDICT? IT ROCKS.
This was the ocean adventurer camp. My two year old tagged along, though it wasn’t geared to his age group. It’s incredible how he remained captivated the entire time, right alongside the 5-7 year olds. My five year old loved it so much, about 15 minutes in, he was already asking when he could come back.
Overall, the EMA day camp gets major five star props from us. The curriculum was educational and the tactile learning activities can’t be beat. This is a MUST DO for locals who love the ocean and everyone who vacations near our favorite island.
In a world of danger, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the impressive safety precautions taken at EMA. Every employee is thoroughly vetted. They are also all lifeguards, first aid certified, and CPR certified. The kids always wear life jackets outside of the storefront. They also follow typical child safety protocol, like always using the buddy system for both children and employees and never allowing an adult to be alone with a child. First aid kits, cell phones, vinegar for jellies, and parent’s emergency contact information, follows them everywhere. As an added precaution, the points the campers visit are marked and known by the first responders on the Island. These extra precautions gave me a sigh of relief.
The ocean is a tremendously important part of our ecosystem, and learning about it helps us to appreciate it. It instills in us and our little ones, a desire to keep it clean through proper disposal of our trash and limitation of unnecessary and harmful products, like straws and plastic water bottles.
My kids will be back for sure, and so will I.
ECOLOGICAL MARINE ADVENTURES: Where it all began
While the existence of Ecological Marine Adventure might be news to you, it’s actually been around for years. Kathleen Glover owned and operated the business for years as a passion project, in Topsail Beach. It was purchased by the town of Surf City in July 2016. Taylor and Amber Maready (a different Taylor than the one who led the camp we attended) were just wrapping up their paddle boarding business in Central America, ready to focus on parenting, when they were presented with the offer to run it.
The ocean loving parents have always been entrepreneurs. Taylor is a local, born and raised here. The self declared merman has the sea in veins. He was already familiar with EMA, as he taught surfing lesson there, years ago. It was a match made in heaven.
It didn’t take long for the Maready’s to realize this was their dream job, and it was perfectly suited for the young couple. Surf City accepted their offer to purchase the business in March 2017.
“I want to teach kids to love the ocean, because if they love it, they will take care of it,” Taylor explained.
He’s adamant about teaching his own toddling little boys to be both careful and confident in the water, respecting the beaches and practicing conservation daily. The kind of guy who puts you right at ease, it only takes a minute to realize how passionate Taylor is about ocean conversation and supporting his community. A local who attended school with Taylor, described him as “probably the nicest person in my graduating class.” He’s legitimately so nice, this is probably still true.
“This is his way of life, not just a business,” Amber confirmed with a smile.
Traditional school never interested Taylor for long. Though he’s obviously highly intelligent, he has little patience for sitting at a desk learning theories. He is a tactile, kinesthetic learner, who needs movement and auditory lessons along with photos and text. So many others, both children and adults, are the same.
Providing that type of learning environment is a crucial objective at Ecological Marine Adventures. Every activity allows the customers to put what they learn into action, bridging the gap between knowledge and understanding. Instead of just hearing about the anatomy of an invertebrate, one camp allows campers to actually dissect a squid themselves. They even get to write with the squid ink! That’s some pretty unforgettable learning.
Amber is nearly as passionate about the ocean as Taylor, but her first love, is children. Before embarking on the entrepreneur adventures with her husband, she was a pediatric dental assistant.
“I love to see kids break through what they think they know about the ocean,” she explained.
Amber is tan ball of energy. There’s something about her laugh and sweet disposition that makes you want to immediately schedule a play date with her, even if your kids aren’t the same age.
They are a likeable team for good reason. Despite being part merman, Taylor (and Amber) wants to see small businesses flourish in our community. He’s quick to recommend locally owned companies and has nothing but kind words and praise for the Topsail community, especially the Surf City Pier.
These small town business owners know their little business has the potential to make a huge impact, not only on locals and vacationers, but on the ocean as a whole.
“The beauty of it is seeing the kids lives change. We have kids who run down the street to pick up trash! They understand the impact, the difference they are making,” Amber gushed, while smoothly pulling a sand dollar out of the mouth of her curious toddler and replacing it with a mango. All without missing a beat.
EMA offers 12 camps a week with a variety of focus, for any age group or interest. Taylor’s favorite program is the Ghost Crab Hunts. The parents always think the activity is just for kids, but it never takes them long to join in the crab hunting fun, with squeals and laughter.
Ecological Marine Adventures is seriously a whole lot of action – not just a whole lot of talk. For the simple deed of educating the public, they offer free community lessons every Tuesday from 1-2pm. Just head over to the Kinston St. access from June to September, weather permitting.
Taylor and Amber break out the seine netting (it’s a big rectangular net that takes two people to manage) and start scooping in the ocean. They talk about whatever creatures their nets snag, giving everyone a close up view of what swims below the surf. There’s no such thing as boring repetition in the life of the Mareadys. They keep the community class varied, mixing it up with seashell scavenger hunts and other fun.
Despite summer being the best time for EMA, they don’t rest in the spring, winter, or fall. Taking the learning into the classroom gives elementary students a chance to learn the same way Taylor learns best – hands on. EMA teaches after school programs, home school groups, and preschool programs. They host school groups at their store front for field trips as well.
YA GOTTA GO
Their latest gadget is a cigarette receptacle. EMA is fully funding and maintaining these nifty little contraptions, to encourage beach goers to drop their butts in the receptacle instead of the sand. The ideas never stop flowing with these two, so make sure you check back with them in a year about an ocean conservation nonprofit they have in the works as well.
As a marine biology center, they continue to work with the state of North Carolina to improve conservation, tag local animals, and educate the public.
Taylor and Amber Meready are a dynamic duo, and Topsail Island is lucky to have such an outstanding marine biology center.
If you live near Topsail or you are planning to vacation here, you need to schedule a day camp, a community lesson, or a ghost crab hunt into your itinerary. We can’t wait to experience them all!
*Taylor Ardis moved on to out of state marine adventures shortly after this article was written, with cheers from her fellow EMA employees. Taylor Maready still works with the Smithsonian, tags sharks, and continues to expand on all the other fascinating work he and Ardis began together.