A Living Classroom

Young students get a hands-on learning experience on Monterey Bay.

 Imagine you’re a preteen on a catamaran cruising through Monterey Bay. Now imagine that catamaran is a research vessel you earned your way onto by completing good works in your community. Now imagine you see a minke whale or an orca or a pod of dolphins. That’s a scenario thousands of Northern California students have experienced thanks to a program that traces its roots to wetsuits.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO) (oneillseaodyssey.org) is a unique program that takes place aboard a research catamaran, and has for a couple of decades, and teaches elementary and middle school students marine science, giving them some perspective on the world by teaching them about the ocean. OSO conducts its workshops free of charge, but students must earn their way into the program by participating in a required community service project.

After building a business empire based on his wetsuits, Jack O’Neill purchased an unfinished catamaran in Sand City, just north of Monterey, Calif., and paid for it to be renovated under the watchful eye of Joel Woods. The Team O’Neill catamaran and the vision to take young adventurers onto Monterey Bay to learn about the marine environment had begun.

Tim O’Neill, Jim Holm, Mike Egan, Theresa Coyle and Jack McLaughlin developed a hands-on school science program tailored to young local students, to encourage them to engage with their backyard, the Pacific Ocean. Dan Haifley joined in 1999 as director of the science program and added the idea of supplementing the excursion with a community service project for each participating class and also to the curriculum.

The excursions take place on the 65-foot catamaran Team O’Neill, where three onboard stations are set up for student groups. With a curriculum tailored for children in fourth, fifth and sixth grade, the program’s three parts consist of Sailing and Navigation, Ecology, and Marine Biology. At the Sailing and Navigation station, students learn about electronic technology for navigation, triangulation and line-of-sight navigation. They also learn how to record their readings, wind speed and depth. Triangulation is something that is far easier to show through a hands-on lesson than it is to describe on paper, so the instructors have the kids draw lines and measure angles so they absorb the process by doing it themselves — old-school methods for an old-school technique.

Station 2 is the Ecology station, and students learn about the Monterey Bay Sanctuary’s characteristics and marine life and habitats. Students take a water sample and determine its pH level while they’re out on in the bay, and they count the otters they spot, to record on their data sheets. The third station is Marine Biology. Students assist with a plankton tow and take the specimen sample back to the classroom for further examination. The Marine Biology lesson teaches students about the cycles of plankton and their important role in the ocean ecosystem.

The program has delivered many memorable experiences, to students and instructors.

“I got to see a Minke whale once from a boat,” said Laura Walker, education coordinator and instructor for OSO. “They aren’t exactly rare, but they are really shy and elusive, and it’s a treat to get to see them. We also saw a huge golden stellar sea lion on Seal Rock. He was so big and golden compared to our California sea lions.

Also, we have caught a couple of juvenile octopuses under the microscope and that’s really rare and thrilling. Of course seeing the orcas was a real treat, because they are rarely so close to shore in Monterey Bay.”

Dan Haifley, executive director of O’Neill Odyssey, raises funds for the program and its building, and he works with the board of directors to keep things running. He laid out the program’s goals for the next five years:
• Serve an additional 25,000 students
• Continue to promote environmental stewardship using hands-on, ocean-based science education for students
• Promote outdoor, environmental education as an effective way to engage students for life-long environmental stewardship

“We will also continue to promote the learning tools we have developed, including a virtual program for students who cannot get to our program, the ocean currents chart that Laura developed, and data that is on our website from each class that has used our program.”

And that’s been a lot of classes. More than 100,000 students have participated in the program, as marked by a celebration June 24 at the Dream Inn at Cowell’s Beach.

Haifley knows the program has had in impact beyond just the students, and if even a fraction of those 100,000 eager kids who have moved through the program act on the things they learn, Monterey Bay has many, many stewards.

“It’s really exciting to have former students come back and tell us the impact our program had on them,” Haifley said. “That includes teachers who use our program, our own staff, even some of our funders. And after 22 years of serving with our program, it’s heartening that the impact on them has lasted.”

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