The Coolest Classroom Ever

O’Neill Sea Odyssey has brought 80,000 students out onto Monterey Bay to learn about the ocean and how to protect it.

By Dan Haifley
In late 1996, a teacher named Peggy Marketello brought her school class to the Santa Cruz Harbor to be the first to participate in a new venture spearheaded by surf industry leader Jack O’Neill and his son, boat skipper Tim O’Neill.  Before long a nonprofit organization called O’Neill Sea Odyssey was formed with a mission to get students out onto Monterey Bay—the coolest classroom ever—to learn about its habitats and the life they support. Most importantly, those youth would also learn how to protect the ocean and the waterways that flow to it.

Roughly 80,000 students and 19 years later, the program has become a popular platform for fourth-graders, fifth-graders and sixth-graders to learn about science and the environment using the hands-on teaching method.  I’ve had the privilege of directing the nonprofit organization and working alongside its amazing team for the past 16 years.

The stewardship O’Neill Sea Odyssey teaches students is needed now more than ever. The ocean covers about 72 percent of the earth’s surface. It’s the world’s largest habitat, its water and vast currents create weather and influences our atmosphere, and phytoplankton at the bottom of its food web produce half our planet’s oxygen produced from plant life. 

The ocean, which also absorbs excess carbon from the atmosphere, is under stress from a variety of causes, one of those being the millions of tons of human-made garbage and pollution—including plastic—that enters it each year,  80 percent of which comes from land.

The Algalita Foundation has produced research which has found that in the North Pacific Gyre, an area bounded by a complex network of ocean currents, "plankton abundance was approximately five times higher than that of plastic, but the mass of plastic was six times that of plankton.”  This problem was brought to public attention by Captain Charles Moore, who encountered a region of floating, mostly plastic waste in the Pacific Gyre while he sailed from Hawaii to Long Beach in 1997.

Sun, wind and saltwater photo-degrade plastic into smaller pieces that retain its polymer structure. The pieces can't be seen from a distance and most are below the surface, suspended in the ocean's water column. There is debris at the surface, though it's visually intermittent.

A couple of years ago my friend, respected gyre researcher Anna Cummins, told me, "Whether you cross the North Pacific, North Atlantic, Indian Ocean or South Atlantic -- we just returned from the latter -- and drag a trawl on the ocean's surface for one half hour to an hour, you will very likely find plastic particles. Not many, up to a teaspoon, but you find them consistently. Across the South Atlantic, we dropped our trawl every 60 miles across 4,000 miles of ocean, and found plastic in every single sample."

Much of the pollution that finds its way to sea could have been prevented from getting there. Re-using products that otherwise are thrown away is one way to do this. Reducing the amount of soil and fertilizers washed downstream is another, and helping other people to do that same thing is yet another. O’Neill Sea Odyssey teaches students to be part of the solution.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey uses the Team O’Neill catamaran as a classroom on Monterey Bay with three onboard learning stations: navigation, marine ecology, marine mammals, and human impacts on Monterey Bay; and marine biology, in which students collect plankton samples on Monterey Bay.  The program has three instructors, enabling a class of 30 students to be broken into three groups of 10 students each for more personalized learning.

Read about a group of fifth graders who spend a day learning on the bay with O'Neill Sea Odyssey, on board the O'Neill Catamaran.

The students return to the harbor for three stations at O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s education center: navigation, which includes the use of navigational charts; marine ecology with includes watersheds, and land-based ocean pollution; and marine biology, where the plankton samples collected on the boat are examined using a microscope connected to a large television screen.

The program is free of charge and each participating classes completes a community service project. Each May, O’Neill Sea Odyssey makes its online application available to prospective classes for the following school year.  Education Coordinator Laura Barnes works with the teacher of each of the 200 to 210 classes selected to undertake their community service project, ocean-going field trip, and in-classroom curriculum.

Community projects have included a forest cleanup at Fall Creek State Park in the San Lorenzo Valley, a cleanup of Upper Carr Lake and Natividad Creek Park in Salinas and a planting of natives in Watsonville’s Struve Slough. Just last school year, participating school classes performed 49 recycling projects, 35 beach cleanups, 26 school campus cleanups, 27 community cleanups, nine habitat restoration efforts, 15 campaigns about ocean threats, and scores of similar projects.

O’Neill Sea Odyssey began to offer free ocean-themed science curriculum for use in school classrooms in 2002, which many teachers have integrated into their regular classroom lesson plans. It also provides funds to qualifying classes for bus transportation from their school site to the program.  The Adam Webster Memorial Fund enables cognitively and physically challenged youth to participate.

This is all possible because of the support of many wonderful donors. To learn about the program and how you can support it, please visit

This is a modified version of a recent Our Ocean Backyard column by Dan Haifley that recently appeared in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.  Dan is executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey, he can be reached at