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Eckerd College student turns club into huge success

By Tom Zucco
Published April 22, 2024
Categories: Student Life, Students, Sustainability

Students in the Marine Life Adventure Society, a club founded by Ben Brust ’24 (back row, fourth from left), head into the Gulf of Mexico on a charter boat.

Ben Brust needed to come up with something. When his plan to lead a small group of Eckerd College student volunteers to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium didn’t come together because of pandemic restrictions at the time, he got creative.

And although he didn’t know it then, he was on his way to creating something so big it would include nearly a third of the Eckerd student population.

It was the spring of 2021, and Ben was a first-year environmental studies student at Eckerd. “As an alternative, I figured it would be fun to do a trip with students—an exploration really—each weekend, focusing on marine animals,” Ben explains. “Our first trip was to Weeki Wachee Springs. We carpooled there and kayaked up the river. We had a great time. There were 24 students, many of whom I had met during Autumn Term.”

And so began the Marine Life Adventure Society, an organization Ben launched that now has more than 600 names on its email list and is one of Eckerd’s most popular student clubs. “It all just fell into place,” he says with a grin. “I would love to figure out how.”

Even though he grew up nowhere near an ocean in Reno, Nevada, “I was always interested in whales and dolphins,” Ben says. “I was really lucky to grow up super close to Lake Tahoe, so I got to visit there every so often. I found out about Eckerd College, and it was a perfect fit. It’s a place where I can pursue my passion for marine science and meet so many people who have the same passion I do.”

Walking through the forest on the way to Buford Spring; photo by Kionna Bright ’25

Group of students in snorkel gear sitting among rocks as tide comes in

Exploring a rocky island on a trip to Key West; photo by Manu Sarassa ’24

The club now offers students about six day trips and one overnight trip per semester to places from Key West to Jupiter to Crystal River. The objective, Ben says, is to encourage students to talk about what they learn on the trip, share their passion for nature and conservation, and “just have fun playing games around the campfire and becoming friends. It’s a bonding experience.”

The cost to students is about $20 to $30 for a day trip and about $150 per person for an overnighter. The club also receives funding provided by the Eckerd College Organization of Students. “The money is put toward hiring charters, renting kayaks and keeping student payments down,” Ben explains.

The club sends out a sign-up email with trip details, then Ben makes booking arrangements. “It’s mostly different people every time,” he says. “We average about 20 to 30 students per trip.”

Watching a nesting leatherback on one of the club trips; photo by Ben Brust ’24

The Marine Life Adventure Society partners with kayak and charter boat vendors, along with the Georgia Aquarium, the Florida Aquarium and the Marine Megafauna Foundation. Students also have worked with Sea Turtle Oversight Protection in Broward County to assist in sea turtle hatchling conservation.

How does he manage to do all this while carrying a full course load? “It seemed overwhelming at first,” he answers. “But I’ve been able to find a way to bring it all together. And that’s because I have a lot of help from all my friends. All of the students make the club what it is.”

Aside from a few dead car batteries, the worst thing that happened was a student became ill while the group was visiting the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. “I went with her in the ambulance to the hospital, and her mom came to pick her up. I saw the student in the cafeteria a couple of days later and she was fine.”

Ben’s final trip before he graduates will be to Cedar Key on May 5. “It was the last trip my freshman year too,” he says. “It’s my favorite place in Florida. We’ll leave early in the morning and spend a really relaxing day exploring the islands nearby. And the stargazing up there is really good because it’s so remote.”

After Ben graduates on May 19, the club will be led by Katie Milano, a junior environmental studies student from Groton, Massachusetts. “I’ve been helping Ben run this club since freshman year, so to see where it started and what it’s become has been incredible,” Katie says. “One thing about Ben that has stood out to me was how excited he would be for members to experience our trips and to see things they’ve never seen before.

Club member Abby O’Donnell ’24 and a bull shark on a shark tagging expedition. Taken by Hallie Cowan ’24

A shark encounter during a deepwater swim; photo by Katie Milano ’25

“This club means the world to me,” Katie adds. “I’ve gotten to do things I never thought I would and met some of my closest friends through this club. It’s an amazing way for students to get off campus and explore Florida. I’ve been representing the club at the last two Explore Eckerd club fairs, and many incoming freshmen have expressed a lot of interest and excitement about joining our club, with a lot of them already following us on Instagram.

“It will be strange without Ben,” she adds, “since we’ve been working together for so long, but I’ve got a great group of people going into next year, and I’m planning on getting more underclassmen involved as well. I want to make sure that the club lives on after I graduate next year and keeps the spirit of the club going.”

Antonia Krueger, Ph.D., visiting assistant professor of theatre at Eckerd and the club’s adviser, says Ben and several of the founding members of the club decided to name the club Marine Life Adventure Society “partly as a nod to Wes Andersons film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and the joy of exploring sea life and varied locations together. They even considered ordering red knit caps in honor of the films tribute to Jacques Cousteau.

“Ben—who exemplifies a liberal arts student with his balanced talent and interest in science, the arts and business—has found a way to combine all three with this club that has brought joy to many Eckerd students during his time here,” Krueger says.

What’s next for Ben? He plans to attend flight school to become an airline pilot. Once again, he’ll be taking people on trips. “I’m fully confident about next year,” he says. “Katie was on the club’s first trip, and she’ll be great.

“My worry is how much I’m going to miss the trips and the College.”