On Saturday, a group of Girl Scouts will be selling Girl Scout cookies underwater. How is that possible? Troop 40348 is believed to be the first and only scuba Girl Scout troop in the country. The girls do everything a regular Girl Scout troop does — sing songs, earn badges, form friendship circles, do community service — but they do it underwater.
Wednesday marked the start of the Girl Scout cookie season in Central Texas, with the first booths beginning Saturday. Cookie season continues through Feb. 24.
The troop began after dive instructor Karen Erickson, a former Girl Scout leader, worked with Girl Scouts of Central Texas to start a program that would train Austin-area girls how to scuba. To do that, they had to be able to follow the safety rules set by Girl Scouts USA as well as diving rules.
Erickson and another troop leader, Michelle Graf, realized that they had trained girls to scuba and receive their certification but that there wasn't an opportunity for the girls to continue scuba diving with Girl Scouts once they had become certified.
They started working with Girl Scouts of Central Texas and got advice from the leaders of the robotics troop about how to start a specialized troop.
Then they reached out to the girls they had trained to see if they would be interested in joining this troop. The troop started with four girls in fall 2016 but now has 13 registered, as well as 20 parents. Only one of the parents doesn't scuba dive. The girls are ages 13-17 and from Austin, Bastrop, Kyle, Dripping Springs, Hutto, Round Rock and Liberty Hill. Only two of the girls go to school together.
The girls have gotten along "amazingly well," Graf says. "That's a credit to Girl Scouts in general. They came in with a common language through scouting and common traditions."
Many of the girls who found the troop are girls who saw their previous troops disband because as girls head to middle school and high school, they start to pick up other interests and activities. A few had become what is called a "Juliette," an independent scout. Some of the girls remain in their home troop as well as this troop.
The girls definitely have a say in the activities they do, and as long as it follows Girl Scouts rules, Graf and Erickson will try to figure out how to do it underwater. That's how the underwater cookie booth started. It was actually a joke. The girls made a YouTube video about the trouble with cookie season as a scuba troop.
In the filming of the video, they figured out how to get it done. They have a special table that is weighted to sink to the bottom of the pool at Dive World Austin. Customers can dive down to order cookies or they can order them from the land by writing their orders on waterproof paper. The orders from the land-lovers are delivered by a rigged up manta ray toy that sinks to the bottom of the pool where the scuba girls are. The customers pay on the surface and then drop shells into the water to indicate that they have paid.
The girls scuba diving at the bottom then send up the cookies, which float up to the surface. Cookies that come in boxes are put into zip-top plastic bags to keep them waterproof. The ones that are already in baglike packages are left that way. Girls in snorkel gear on the surface of the pool make sure the cookies get to the customers.
More videos have followed on their YouTube channel, including videos inviting Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock to their cookie booth on Saturday. They've also filmed a bridging ceremony to move a girl from one level of Girl Scout to another, a friendship circle and a song session.
They've created a video called "We're Not Going to Take Your Trash," set to the Twisted Sister song "We're Not Gonna Take It," that calls attention to the amount of trash pollution in the waters where they dive.
What started as a fun way to keep the girls involved in scuba diving has turned into something more. The girls have done a lot of conservation work, including traveling to the Florida Keys to plant coral, learning about sea turtle conservation and picking up trash in Lake Travis.
"We were not prepared for the eco-warriors that we created," says Graf. "They are extremely passionate about what's happening in our oceans and pollution in our lakes and water system."
Troop member Ella Swartzendruber, 14, has been collecting some of the trash she found in Lake Travis. She is planning to create a trash sculpture that will be displayed at a Girl Scout center to bring awareness to the pollution in Lake Travis. It will become her Silver Award project, which is like the equivalent of the Boy Scout Eagle Scout Award, but for middle-schoolers.
She had done a few dives before she joined the troop but now gets to dive frequently. "We get to do one of the things I really love, which is scuba diving, and we help save the ocean in the process, which is a really good cause," she says.
Her mom, Cortney Swartzendruber, says this troop is one of a kind. "I'm so grateful for the troop leaders who have taken this experience in a different direction than just being a recreational diver. They're getting the practice and bringing it around to the community and the environment."
Mackenzie Gust, 14, had lost her own troop when her mom went to work for Girl Scouts of Central Texas to run its camps and had to give up being a troop leader. Even before that, the badges and troop activities were starting to bore her, she says. She joined this troop last spring.
Doing everything underwater, she says, is much more interesting. "You have to plan it out and think a lot through."
She thinks the cookie booth will be more enjoyable for the customers.
Her mom, Angie Gust, says she was worried that Mackenzie's time as a scout would be over before she joined the scuba troop. "It was the first thing that had gotten her excited in a long time," she says.
Now Mackenzie is thinking about doing something on the use of straws and its damage to marine life for her Gold Award project, which is for girls in high school.
Scuba diving isn't a cheap recreational sport. Everywhere they go, there are dive fees and equipment rentals and tank fees that need to be paid. Dive World Austin has sponsored the troop and provided them use of equipment, tanks and use of its pool during the winter months, when Lake Travis might be considered too cold, or when the lake is low or too murky after floods.
The girls probably spend about $200 to $300 a year to go on the dives, except the bigger trips like the one to the Florida Keys last year and the one this summer to St. Croix. Graf estimates that if the girls tried to do the troop without Dive World Austin's sponsorship, it would be $1,000 or more per girl during the year, not including the larger trips.
"Overall, it's just a good activity," says Erickson. "It folds into what scouting is all about."