At their wildly popular summer camp program in South Portland, Jeff and Deb Sandler have spent four decades schooling thousands of young people in the ways of the ocean and its colorful denizens.
SOUTH PORTLAND — The giggles began when Jeff Sandler strolled into the classroom wearing a white wig and a robe decorated with yellow lightning bolts.
“Oh yes, it’s me, your basic storm,” he said. “I have everything a storm needs.”
Children in the audience tittered from their cross-legged positions on the floor.
“Lightning,” he said, waving a yellow bolt in the air. “Wind,” he cried, exhaling a loud breath. “Thunder,” he shouted, dancing as he sang, “Boom-ba-da-boom-ba-da-boom.”
“And what’s a storm without lots of rain and big waves?” he said, spritzing water under his armpits with a spray bottle.
The giggles gave way to raucous laughter.
Jeff is better known to his audience as Mr. Fish, and his wife, Deb Sandler, is Mrs. Fish. They are the founders and anchors of Fish Camp, a marine education summer camp at Southern Maine Community College.
Fish Camp has been an institution in South Portland for 39 years, and this summer will be its last. The Sandlers will continue to make educational visits to schools and aquariums, but at ages 69 and 67, respectively, Mr. and Mrs. Fish have decided to close the camp.
As many as 400 children aged 7 to 13 years old have visited Fish Camp in a summer, and the couple has lost count of the total over four decades.
“Many thousands,” Jeff said.
Jeff and Deb met in Portland in their 20s when they were both involved in what became the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on Commercial Street. They wanted to teach children about the ocean, and in 1978, they began to host school groups in a classroom at Southern Maine Community College.
They called themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Fish,” but they didn’t get along at first.
“The two of us were sort of thrown together, both thinking we would be the boss,” Deb said.
But they fell in love, married and later had a daughter and named her Coral. They starred in three local TV specials and learned how to make costumes. Silly skits and homemade costumes are still the foundation of their program. Their shows teach children about ocean creatures – Jeff wears a starfish costume; and clean water – Jeff dresses up as a giant water drop; and tidal pools – Jeff is the storm attempting to disrupt the creatures in the pool.
By 1980, they were visiting schools five days a week. They began to train aquarium staff across the country to use creative dramatics for educational purposes. They have received awards from organizations that include the Gulf of Maine Marine Educators Association, the National Marine Educators Association and the National Water Environment Federation.
They have since taken their shows to 20 countries and territories, from Japan to American Samoa to the Middle East. Their office in South Portland is papered with ads for their shows – the yellowing poster from their first assembly at Reiche Elementary School in Portland, a newspaper clipping from Massachusetts, a poster from Las Vegas, a hand-drawn flier for the Mr. & Mrs. Fish 1985 Turks & Caicos Tour, a Scottish ad for Mr. and Mrs. Fish “returning to Edinburgh by popular demand.”
But every summer, they have returned to their classroom near Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse for Fish Camp.
“What we’re most proud of is the work we can do here with kids locally,” Jeff said. “This is our home.”
Tuesday at Fish Camp started with free time.
The Sandlers are running three two-week sessions and one one-week session this summer. As many as 100 children sign up for each session; the cost to attend is $675 for two weeks and $375 for one week.
Kids arrive at 9 a.m. to join a game of four square, draw a picture for the camp’s gallery wall or pluck creatures from the tide pools. As Jeff and Deb prepare for their day, children run into their office with drawings of sharks or wriggling crabs found in the pools. Deb puts on her glasses to inspect the findings in one boy’s Tupperware. Her earrings – large green fish – dangle.
“Go put it in the bucket,” she tells him.
They gather the children together for a morning meeting. Deb displays the morning’s tide pools for the kids, including the contents of the boy’s Tupperware. It turns out to be a green crab, and she tells her audience they can be identified by the number of ridges on their shells – five, like the number of letters in the word “green.” Hands shoot in the air to identify a scallop shell, and everyone applauds when one camper successfully identifies the difference between female and male crabs.
Jeff leads a puppet show and then disappears to change into his thunderstorm costume. Deb dresses campers in costumes to represent the life in a tide pool – a mussel, a barnacle, a sea urchin and a piece of seaweed. She is animated as she describes each one, and she uses plungers and props to act out the ways they hang on to the rocks when a storm comes through.
“Mia is going to be a sea creature that loves the sunshine,” Deb says. “She’s right out there in the open on top of the rocks. You can see her all the time when you go to the tide pools. She’s going to be small and white, look like a miniature volcano, and she’s going to be called a …”
“Barnacle,” the audience chimes in.
The campers accept their roles solemnly and listen to their instructions, but when Jeff appears as a thunderstorm, they can’t hide their grins behind their costumes.
Still smiling, the campers head outside for games. They mimic jellyfish with giant parachutes, play a game of kickball with staff who are dressed as clownish zombies and throw water balloons as a sandcastle city.
Some kids met Mr. and Mrs. Fish at school. Luke Gagne, 10, begged his mom to send him to Fish Camp after Mr. and Mrs. Fish visited his class in Cape Elizabeth.
“Mr. and Mrs. Fish came in when I was in kindergarten, and I liked them a lot,” Luke said.
Others are the children of Fish Campers from years past. Caroline Granata, 15, and her brother Braden Paradis, 7, said their grandfather worked at the camp when it first opened. Their mom and aunt attended as children and returned as counselors. This year, Caroline is a counselor too. Their cousin, Reese Schaiberger, 9, came from Massachusetts to join Braden as a camper.
It was early in their two-week session, but they are looking forward to ghost stories at the lighthouse, digging for clams, field trips for ice cream and the night when everyone stays until 8 p.m. for a talent show. They love the range of voices Mr. and Mrs. Fish do during the skits.
“We learned – what was the one that could move backwards?” Braden asked.
“A scallop,” Caroline reminded him.
Stephanie Howard, 42, lives in Massachusetts but brings her family to her childhood home in Cape Elizabeth in the summer. Three of her four children will attend Fish Camp this summer, just like she did.
“The fourth child, she’s too little, so she’ll miss the whole Fish Camp experience,” Howard said. “I was heartbroken.”
Many of the songs and skits Howard saw as a child are still part of Fish Camp. The kindness she remembers from Mr. and Mrs. Fish hasn’t changed either.
“There’s so much technology and sports year round,” Howard said. “It’s so nice to have one that’s just old-school camp. Mr. and Mrs. Fish, they are incredibly kind and energetic people. I think the one thing that really stands out about them is they are truly able to see the best in every child.”
Many campers return year after year. Sophia Gavin, 9, from Portland, rattled off the list of things she had missed since last summer – her friends, the guinea pigs, the counselors and, of course, Mr. and Mrs. Fish.
“They make it more fun than a teacher standing up there just saying, ‘Now we have to learn about the habitats,'” Gavin said.
And almost every counselor and staff member is a former camper.
Molly Brenerman, 26, has been coming to Fish Camp as a camper and then a counselor since she was 7 years old. She graduated from the University of Southern Maine in May and plans to be a teacher, but she had to come back for the last summer in South Portland.
“Fish Camp teaches you a lot about the ocean, but it also teaches you to be kind to other people,” she said. “Fish Camp inspired me to want to be a teacher.”
The announcement of Fish Camp’s final summer has inspired notes from former campers and parents.
Jeff has collected them in his office.
“Fish camp is a topic of conversation all year,” one parent wrote. “There are many Maine-made marine biologists and naturalists” because of Fish Camp, another said.
Jeff’s eyes had turned red, and he wiped a tear.
“That makes me cry,” he said.
Mr. and Mrs. Fish will continue to make appearances at schools, aquariums and other camps. But the Sandlers are ready for their first summer off in more than 40 years.
“I’m going to sail a lot,” Deb said. “I have a Sailfish I don’t have the energy to use until the end of the summer.”
They know, however, that their lives will be quieter without the camp. Deb said she will miss leading silly songs every day.
“I really enjoy singing with the kids,” she said.
Jeff will miss another sound.
“Kids laughing,” Jeff said. “I really love the sound of kids laughing.”