Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Close Encounters

The second leg of Chris Simms’ Wild Adventures program with The Children’s Home brought the explorers in close proximity to some amazing marine wildlife

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Bucs QB Chris Simms and his fellow adventurers encountered a great deal of wildlife on Saturday

The Wild Adventures continued on Saturday, thanks to Chris Simms.

The community-minded Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback accompanied 12 kids from The Children's Home to the Florida Aquarium – and beyond – over the weekend, continuing his three-part "Wild Adventures" program. And this little expedition lived up to the program's name, as Simms and the children saw such animals as dolphins, manatees and a shark, all in their natural habitats.

Simms, who was scheduled to play in Michael Clayton's Celebrity Hoops jam later that afternoon, met the kids at the aquarium bright and early Saturday morning, and the entire party climbed aboard "The Bay Spirit," a 64-foot catamaran. After watching a short safety video in the boat's cabin, the group was free to find a seat on the bow and enjoy the ride to Fantasy Island.

Yes, Fantasy Island. A four-acre spoil island in the Bay, the retreat is owned by the Florida Aquarium and the Tampa Port Authority. It serves as a perfect off-site classroom for the aquarium's many educational programs.

The day's adventures began before the group even arrived on the island. Several of the children saw small ripples in the water, prompting the boat captain to slow almost to a stop. Once the boat was still and quiet, several dolphins made their presence known, swimming towards the boat and jumping out of the water to show off for their spectators. The beautiful creatures eventually disappeared underwater, on their way to play with the next boatload of unsuspecting humans.

On the island, the aquarium guides explained the process of beach seining so that the young adventurers could try their hands at collecting bits of native wildlife. In seining, two people hold the ends of a large net and drag it through the shallow ocean water. The net scoops and separates small fish and marine organisms from the water, allowing them to be identified. At the beginning of the adventure, the kids were given pictures of different types of fish, mussels and other ocean creatures so they could determine what they had captured in their net.

The seining net yielded several small fish, some conch and crabs and various types of seashells during the day. Each pass of the net brought in another moment of excitement for the kids before the small creatures were released back to their homes.

A much larger fish among the smaller ones near shore caught the eye of several group members. Though only about two feet long, it was still the largest in the waters just off the island. The aquarium guides recognized the fish as a bonnethead shark, one that closely resembles the more well-known hammerhead shark. As soon as the small predator realized there were people in its midst, it swam quickly to the deeper open waters farther from the island.

The shark's departure didn't mean the end of the wild aquatic encounters for these adventurers.

Just as the group was preparing to depart, a splash just beyond where the waters started to deepen caught everyone's attention. The adventurers expected to see a stingray but instead were startled by a small, round nose poking up out of the water. It was an adult manatee and its baby, mere yards from the spot in which Simms and the kids were standing

It was a wonderful surprise, completely unexpected even by the professionals on hand. The aquarium guides claimed such an encounter was very rare; in fact, one particular guide had been leading Fantasy Island trips for five years and had never before seen a manatee surface in the vicinity.

Appreciating the moment, Simms and the children stood motionless, hoping for a few more glimpses of the sea cows. The manatees obliged for a short time before disappearing underwater again.

After lunch back at the aquarium, Simms' group received a behind-the-scenes tour that wound up at the top of the facility's enormous shark tank.

That was a treat, but Simms particularly enjoyed the earlier opportunities to see marine wildlife in its native environments.

"I loved seeing the dolphins on the boat ride there," said Simms. "The chance to see the manatees and the baby shark was definitely really cool."

Simms also remembered the real reason he was there – to give his young friends from The Children's Home the chance to experience some Wild Adventures.

"I had a great time just being outside, being in the water and being with the kids. Seeing them have a great time was good enough for me."

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