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Education at Sea: Way More Fun than the Field Trips You Remember


Story & photos by: Kelly Servick | KUSP News

The O’Neill Sea Odyssey has a special way of introducing kids to the ocean. In the seventeen years since it welcomed its first class aboard, the Team O’Neill catamaran has become a popular field trip for fourth through sixth graders in Santa Cruz and surrounding counties.

On a warm Wednesday afternoon in April, fourth graders from Main Street Elementary School in Soquel, hardly believing their good fortune, roll around on the deck of a catamaran that speeds into Monterey Bay.


Fourth graders from Main Street Elementary board the Team O’Neill catamaran.


Students look back to land as the catamaran heads out


Instructor Adam Steckley shows students the anatomy a kelp plant .


Adam Steckley explains how energy moves through ecosystems.


Celia Lara demonstrates the boat’s radar equipment.


Students practice getting their bearings with compasses.


Lauren Hanneman shows students the net they’ll use to catch plankton.


A fourth grade student pulls the plankton net back onboard.


Students peer into the plankton sample they’ve collected.


Students discuss the model ecosystem they’ve just flooded with spray bottles.

“This is so fun!” screams one student, as the trampoline on deck bounces with the waves. The students are part of a daylong educational program founded by the famous surfer and wetsuit designer Jack O’Neill. He bought this 65-foot catamaran as a launch pad for his hot air balloon, but in 1996, he turned it into a floating science lab.

Lessons that stick

“We transform Monterey Bay into the world’s largest classroom,” explains Dan Haifley, the program’s Executive Director. “Everything’s there: hydrology, physical science, life science, we have incredible biology here, particularly in the near shore kelp forest habitats.”

The program aims to teach kids about the importance of the ocean in their lives, and encourages them to protect it from pollution. Nearly 75,000 students have participated so far, and research suggests the message is sinking in. A long-term impact study conducted by one of the program’s instructors found that kids who go on this trip tend to hold on to that sense of stewardship five to seven years later.

The program is geared toward low-income schools and underserved kids, many of whom have never been out on a boat before. The field trip is free of charge, though the students must earn their day on the bay with a community service project, like a creek restoration or beach cleanup. “It aligns with what we do and it teaches them service, it teaches them a sense of community,” Haifley says. The program also aligns with the state science curriculum and sends teachers home with follow-up materials, in both English and Spanish.

Aboard the floating classroom

After the thirty Main Street students organize themselves into three teams named after deep-sea creatures, they split up to join the O’Neill instructors. Members of Team Viperfish sit in a circle on the deck as Adam Steckley passes around a strip of kelp. Now is this plant at the top or the bottom of the food chain?” he asks. “Where is this plant getting its energy from? What is that process called?”

Meanwhile, Team Anglerfish makes its way into the cabin, where Celia Lara is explains the boat’s navigational equipment, including the radar screen that indicates its relationship to the coast and the wharf.

By the time they reach their final stations, these students are worn out. At the stern, Lauren Hanneman shouts out facts about plankton, hoping to give the fading field-trippers a burst of energy: “Do you guys want to find out how much plankton is in the water? Alright, well let’s go down here and catch some!”

The students then return to the program’s education center to review what they’ve learned. Steckley arms his group with spray bottles, and they drench a plastic model ecosystem, observing how rain washes pollution out to sea. He closes with a serious message: “Now you all have the knowledge knowing where that pollution comes from, we can make some changes in the way that we live on the land to reduce – maybe even eliminate – that pollution.”

Brian Boyce, the fourth graders’ teacher, was on his first O’Neill trip today too. He says he’d like to bring his future classes back for the same experience. “They took home something they’ll never forget and it’s expanding their personal bubble,” he says. “They aren’t living in their tiny little community. They’re starting to realize there’s a larger world out there – a whole ocean they can explore.”

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