Gone Fish-in’: Sea change comes for popular South Portland camp

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SOUTH PORTLAND — After almost four decades, a local couple who have run a popular summer day camp is hanging up their nets and scaling back operations.

Jeff and Deb Sandler – a.k.a. Mr. & Mrs. Fish – are closing Fish Camp.

“We are retiring after 39 years,” Jeff Sandler said. The camp’s last day is Friday, Aug. 11.

Jeff, 69, and Deb, 67, are leaving behind a well-known legacy and South Portland institution, but the couple said they plan to continue traveling and working in classrooms, teaching children about marine life.

In 1978, long before the Sandlers married, they developed their Mr. and Mrs. Fish persona. In 1979, they started the camp with six campers. Its formal name is the Mr. and Mrs. Fish Summer Marine Education Program, but everyone knows it simply as “Fish Camp.”

The pair met when they were hired as educational directors by the Research Institute of the Gulf of Maine (now the Gulf of Maine Research Institute).

Jeff has a master’s degree in environmental education and an undergraduate degree in journalism, and Deb has bachelor’s degrees in elementary education and marine science.

Both Sandlers thought they were hired as the only education director, so they weren’t very fond of each other at first. But they learned to work together, discovering along the way that each had skills that complemented the other.

Today, the partners praise each other.

Deb calls Jeff a visionary. Jeff said his wife is creative with costumes and is a wonderful “earth mother.”

“She’s pretty fabulous,” he said.

But back in the beginning they had to learn together while developing educational programs for children.

“You laugh as you learn, which is one of our main philosophies,” Deb said.

‘All things have value’

Thousands of Maine children have now attended “Fish Camp” and learned about the ocean.

The camp has been held in a leased building on Lighthouse Circle at Southern Maine Community College, which became the “Fish Building” when an art studio was transformed into a marine classroom.

On a recent summer day, the room contained a tide pool tank stocked with sea life found by the campers. A 300-gallon aquariaum is home to an assortment of ocean fish given to the camp by lobstermen, including sculpin, lungfish, Jonah crab, sea cucumber and a variety of hermit crabs. The campers gather tiny green crabs and rock gunnels, which look like miniature eels, to feed to the fish each day. At the end of camp, the fish are returned to the ocean.

Jeff said he and Deb teach children that the sea creatures are their neighbors and a life form they should respect.

“We want the children to learn that we all share the planet,” Jeff said. “… We want children to consider that all living things have value.”

The couple has typically conducted three, two-week sessions and a final one-week session.  Their adult daughter, Coral, came back to work to work as a camp counselor for the camp’s final year.

“We wanted to go out with our heads high with happy children,” Jeff said.

The Sandlers have worked in 20 countries teaching marine science. They have written and starred in three television specials and have traveled to schools all over the world and the United States teaching children about the oceans.

But every summer they have returned to South Portland to run Fish Camp.

Life lessons

Children who attended the camp have acquired life lessons while learning about marine life from Mr. and Mrs. Fish; every camper has climbed a 10-foot wall that teaches them about strength, courage and wisdom.

About 100 smiling, laughing, children were attending camp Monday, when, like the thousands of campers before them, they were given free time to make choices about what they want to do. They can go for a walk to the tide pools, play sports, play “truck city” on the beach, make crafts, or play with water balloons. There were dozens of activities to choose from.

Mr. and Mrs. Fish, the camp counselors and campers dress up in costumes and put on skits. They have sand-sculpture contests, crab races, camp Olympics, field trips, beach and swim time. Everything is done with a creative twist – dodge ball, which they roll instead of throw, becomes “bowling for campers;” hide-and-seek becomes “bounty hunters,” with outlaw names given ocean names.

“Children can be whoever they are on any given day,” said Jeff, who speaks in a soothing voice as he bends down to eye level with a camper.

Autumn Johnstone, 43, a fourth-grade teacher who lives in Missoula, Montana, for many years has driven to South Portland with her three children, now 7, 10, and 11, so they can attend Fish Camp and she can be a camp counselor.

At age 7, Johnstone, who lived in Portland at the time, started attending the camp each summer. At 14, she became a counselor and has been coming back to the camp ever since, except for eight years when her children were younger.

“It is one of the most heartwarming things to see – my kids as campers,” Johnstone said.

She said the camp reminds her of what education can look like.

“It inspires me to come come back and bring some of these tricks with me, to try to be more theatrical in my presentations,” Johnstone said. “I think because of fish camp, I became a teacher.”

As a child, Johnstone said, “It was just magical. I loved the silliness of it all, the challenges, the wall.”

Johnstone said she’s “incredibly lucky” to have been part of Fish Camp for so long.

“Mr. and Mrs. Fish have given the kids and the community a gift for so many years,” she said.  

Melanie Sochan can be reached at 781-3661 ext.106 or msochan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @melaniesochan.

Deb Sandler, 67, left, and her husband Jeff, 69, founded the Mr. and Mrs. Fish Summer Marine Education Program 39 years ago in South Portland. “Fish Camp” comes to an end this week.

Sophie Brooks, 13, of Scarborough, climbs a 10-foot wall during Fish Camp this week in South Portland. Aug. 11 is the camp’s last day because founders Jeff and Deb Sandler are retiring.