I have attended and/or worked at several different summer camps. I also have a master's in psychology from Stanford, and have spent several years working as a college counselor and life coach for gifted young people.
Based on all my knowledge and experience, I think that ActionQuest is by far the best. Basically, you learn to sail, scuba dive, windsurf, wakeboard/waterski, and other activities -- while living aboard a beautiful sailboat with about 11 other teens and 3-4 "elder shipmates" (we weren't supposed to call them counselors, because they weren't).
If you're less action-oriented than I am, they also have programs in Marine Biology andCommunity Service -- in the British Virgin Islands, Tahiti, Australia, the Galapagos and other amazing locations around the world.
Aside from giving me an amazing opportunity to explore chemistry and biology is a super engaging, hands-on way -- aside from the amazing experiences, adventures and certifications I earned there -- I will never forget what it was like to fall asleep each night under the Caribbean stars in a hammock I tied between the mast and the forestay.
You don't do this with flash cards. You don't do it at math camp or SAT tutoring. (See also: APs Make You Look Complacent, Not Curious.) You do this with a camp like ActionQuest, where every day presents a new goal, experience or adventure. You learn in a way that is hands-on -- and incredibly different from classroom learning. And you build on what you've already learned by doing things like:
- Raise a toilet from a ship wreck at 80-feet to the surface using lift bags -- relying on physics, chemistry, teamwork and knot-tying knowledge you've been practicing (and believe me -- because of the way dissolved nitrogen interacts with your brain, just tying a bowline knot can be a difficult task at depth).
- Use your underwater navigation and search and recovery skills to locate a "lost buddy" before they die.
- Safely and correctly "rescue" the victim of a dive injury, then determine what is wrong with them and how to save them.
- Identify different species of fish and learn how they interact with their environment - such that you can point out (vs. read about) behaviors like predation, "cleaning stations" (like cleaner wrasse, remoras hitching rides on sea turtles, etc.) symbiotism, territorialism, etc. You also learn about migration, breeding and reproduction, invasive species, ecology, etc. But in the most amazing way possible.
- Work effectively with your shipmates to sail your ship fastest and beat the other boats in your floatilla.
- Read the water and weather conditions so you know what's coming -- and then respond to it. (There are some really interesting physics lessons when it comes to sailing through a squall.)
- Understand the difference between "conservation of energy" and "conservation of speed."
- Read a map, use a compass -- and even the basics of star navigation.
- Explore the effects of pressure on balloons (if you take them underwater, they shrink to 1/n their original size, where n is the number of atmospheres underwater you are) and eggs (you can peel the shells off of uncooked eggs underwater, and the pressure holds them tightly together, as though the shell were still there -- you can use your hands and arms to move it all around and pass it back and forth to each other. It's pretty trippy).
- Explore the effect of wavelength on how colors are absorbed by water. I knew conceptually that if I ever cut myself underwater, I'd bleed green. Which I'd assumed meant green-ish, but mostly brownish-red... Until the day I cut my hand on a piece of plastic at about 70 feet. I bled green as an alien.
- Using a compass and natural features to triangulate the position of something in the water -- and then coming back later to recover it.
- CPR, Oxygen Administration, lifeguarding, and other essential safety skills that I think everyone should know.
- Responding to a man overboard situation.
And so much more.
When I got home from my second summer of AQ, I had a new life goal. It wasn't to be a scuba instructor or a sail bum or anything like that. It was to be a doctor. Because completing my Rescue Diver training made me realize what an elegant, amazing machine the human body is. The body is physics! The body is chemistry (I thought it was so interesting that hot tubbing, exercising and free diving after scuba can cause dissolved gases in your blood to expand -- I mean, pv=nrt, right? BUT STILL!).
And the body is common sense -- except not. I wanted to learn more about why nitrogen makes us stupid and euphoric. I wanted to know what about hydrogen calms us down. I wanted to get better and faster at calculating exactly much air I would have to add to a lift bag to raise objects of different masses and densities -- even though, in practice, you can pretty much just eyeball it.
Even though what you feel is adventurous... you're also being extremely intellectual.
But back to the adventure thing. At ActionQuest, you do all kinds of stuff that is just breathtaking and epic. Like flying across the water while windsurfing on a gusty day. Or getting really good at a sport you've never done before, like wakeboarding. Or, if you're going to do the underwater navigation track, dropping down to 50-feet, to a completely sandy bottom, and navigating a dive in total darkness (except for your flashlight, obviously -- but still, think about what that would be like! Descending into total blackness and thinking, I'm going down there. For 45 minutes. And I'm bringing all my air with me).
I think that's really good for a young person's psyche. It builds so much confidence. After all, as I wrote in Kids' Games Are Getting More Dangerous, and It's Entirely Their Parents' Fault, kids need a sense of risk, danger and adventure. It's an important part of their development. It prevents them from developing phobias and anxiety disorders.
And, I know I've already said it, but it's really fun.
"I want my ASA Basic Keelboat Certification."
"I want to be a Dive Master."
"I want to learn to be an Underwater Naturalist."
Goals are important -- and, as I wrote in There Is No Benefit to "Teaching" or "Working On" Self-Esteem, goal setting is one of the very few ways we know kids and teens can grow their self-confidence.
To that end, ActionQuest forces you to think and learn all the time -- as opposed to just being told, "Okay, meet in the lobby at this time tomorrow, and we're going to do these things, and sleep in this town, and then we're going to go here."
ActionQuest isn't just fun and educational -- it's also empowering.
Not to mention diving i world-class diving in world-class diving destinations. Like these:
So my boyfriend is many things. Among them, a dive master (I'm a mere "master diver" -- there's a difference). He's done a lot of diving, and he's taken plenty of certified divers on guided tours. He used to tell me these ridiculous stories about people who would sink like stones or shoot to the surface like torpedos because they couldn't control their buoyancy. Or put their own equipment together. Or use a compass. People would pay him waaaaytoo much money to take them shore diving, because they didn't have the knowledge or experience to go out on their own.
When he first told me these things, I didn't believe him. I knew kids as young as 13 at AQ who showed up having never been diving before and left diving like a pro. I refuse to believe that a certified adult could be so bad at diving.
Then I met this other dive master, and she told me the same things. After hearing it from a complete stranger, rather than my trusted companion, I knew it must be true.
When you get your certifications real quick during a vacation, you become what I call a "resort diver." You can dive just fine -- if someone else adjusts your buoyancy, plans the dive, guides you and navigates.
At AQ, you live, eat and breath sailing and scuba diving for the 3-9 weeks you're at camp. There are enough instructors relative to students that they can really teach to you, rather than just sticking to a curriculum.
And because you live on a relatively small boat together, 24/7, the learning never stops. You hear all sorts of wonderful and terrifying stories from people who have thousands of dives under their weight belt. People who really want to extend the challenge beyond what would be possible at other diving institutions.
For example: imagine being woken up in the middle of the night by your instructor, who tells you they've "lost their buddy"... and then starts a stopwatch. You have to jump out of your hammock to assemble your team, your gear, and plan of action. You have to find the "buddy" before it's too late. (Trust me, from that moment on, you will always sleep next to your assembled dive gear.)
Then we talk about it. Or do activities around it. And it turns into this weird, touching and (I'll say it again) magical evening. This isn't what you're ostensibly buying when you sign up for ActionQuest -- but it might be the most valuable part of the experience. And it's certainly one you won't get anywhere else.
I wish I could do a better job describing it, but this is the best I can do. If you ever talk to an AQ alum, ask them about Jim, and they'll probably say the exact same thing.
So that's my two cents. I also feel like I should say that, even though it might not sound like it, I am in no way employed by AQ. I went there in 2002 and 2003. These words are my own. I'm not being compensated for them. I want to share this information, because ActionQuest is just that good.