How to Save The Sea Otters

With Assemblymember Mark Stone's outdoor education bill waiting to be heard in the California State Assembly, O'Neill Sea Odyssey proves that marine science in the open air really works.

by Traci Hukill

March 26, 2014—Eight kids sit in a semicircle around Lauren Hanneman on the O’Neill catamaran’s woven deck, leaning in for a good look at a piece of kelp. After leaving the harbor—an event celebrated with oohs and aahs as the big boat picked up speed and the kids got their first taste of wind and wave action— the class of 26 fifth-graders from Ann Soldo Elementary School in Watsonville was divided into three groups and shepherded to different areas of the boat for hands-on lessons in marine ecology, marine science and navigation. The Urchins, Plankton and Otters are now fully immersed in the O’Neill Sea Odyssey experience.

The kelp in Hanneman’s hands, snipped somewhere around Steamer Lane, drips seawater. “Can you see anything on this kelp that might help it float?” Hanneman asks. Fingers point to the air bladders. Hanneman passes the kelp around, then asks the students to notice how soft their hands are after handling the seaweed. “Your hair gel, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, ice cream, shaving cream …. Any liquid that’s thick and sticky has kelp slime in it,” Hanneman says.

Hanneman’s lesson on ecology has already been aided by several excited sea otter sightings on the way out to the mile buoy—including an enormous male—which will help bring home the concept of a “keystone predator” of the kelp forest. Hanneman explains that the presence of a keystone predator keeps the ecosystem in balance. In the case of the kelp forest, sea otters eat the urchins that dine on kelp.

“And what would happen if the sea otters went away or stopped eating urchins?”

“There would be more of them,” comes the chorus.

“And what would happen to the kelp forest?”

They’re ready for this one too. “They would eat it all.”

Hanneman switches gears slightly to address threats to the sea otter, passing around a pelt to establish the importance of good grooming, which allows the fur to trap air, and keeps the otter warm. “What do you think would happen if the otter couldn’t groom?”

“It would get cold.”

“That’s right. It would die. How long would it take? Any guesses? About a half-hour.

“Can you think of a pollutant that would hurt otters if it got in their fur? That comes from our cars?”

A few minutes on petroleum and plastic follow. These things never decompose, explains Hanneman. Once in the ocean they are there forever. Once in an otter’s pelt they don’t go away. So it’s important to keep them out of the ocean. Hanneman brings the lesson back around to the ecological angle.

“Shouldn’t we have a lot of otters?”

“Yesss,” they answer altogether.

Making A Difference

As it happens, the Ann Soldo field trip takes place 25 years and one day after the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound. And as it happens, O’Neill Sea Odyssey Executive Director Dan Haifley is celebrating his 25th anniversary on this very day—meaning that on his wedding day a quarter century ago, when Haifley was 31, he was fielding one panicked phone call after another from fellow ocean advocates.

Valdez and the 1990 American Trader spill in Huntington Beach “were horrible tragedies,” says Haifley, “but the silver lining is they made people aware of the danger posed to the ocean by petroleum.”

In 1996, surf gear pioneer Jack O’Neill and his kids founded O’Neill Sea Odyssey with an eye toward educating children about the ocean and the need to protect it. Since then 75,000 fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders have completed OSO’s half-day open-air curriculum. Most hail from Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties, but classes from as far away as Modesto have attended, and one Oakland teacher brings her students each year. This year OSO is on target to take 210 classes out—almost 6,000 kids.
Read Teaching Kids About Science Via PORTS
Read about the July 5, 2013 Beach Cleanup Results
Read O'Neill Yacht Charters Hooks Hilltrompers

Ann Soldo teacher Maria Martinez has brought her classes here many times before. “It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “The students that do it in fourth and fifth grade, it’s still an amazing and rich experience. Especially for the English language learners, which we have a lot of. It’s priceless, really.

“I feel like what sticks the most is the stuff with the animals and the ecology part—your impact on the environment,” she adds.

A short survey of her class conducted pre- and post-trip bears out Martinez’s observations. Asked before boarding the boat how many of them currently “share what I know about protecting the environment and ocean with my friends and family,” 9 kids raised their hands. Asked after the trip if they planned to start doing so, 22 kids did.

Surveys like this help OSO staff track their efficacy. The results can be startling. A compilation of before-and-after surveys from September through December 2013 showed that pre-trip, 49.6% of kids knew where storm drains lead (“directly to the ocean” is the answer if you live in Santa Cruz); afterward 96.7% reported that they knew this fact.

Law of Nature

Proving the program’s worthiness is important right now, while AB 1603 waits to be heard in committee on April 8.

Introduced by Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz), the bill would create an Outdoor Environmental Education Program under the Department of Parks and Recreation aimed at “increasing the ability of underserved and at-risk populations to participate in outdoor recreation and educational experiences.” Nonprofits offering educational outings to low-income students, such as OSO, Watsonville Wetlands Watch, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Return of the Natives and Elkhorn Slough Foundation, could apply for grants under the program.

Stone, a champion of ocean health, has noted that “in many underserved communities, participation in outdoor environmental education and recreation programs are the only exposure kids have to nature and the environment.”

AB 1603, if it passes, will make a big difference to groups operating these programs, not just because of the usual hardships faced by nonprofits but because of shrinking education budgets that limit what the schools can do. One example: in 2005 OSO started offering bus service to ferry kids to and from field trips because schools could no longer afford to send students to the free half-day program. That’s added $30,000 to the organization’s annual budget of $1.1 million.

While Dan Haifley says OSO will apply for grants should AB 1603 pass, that’s not the main reason for his vocal support of the bill.

“Our board of directors has decided that advocacy for the field [of outdoor education] is important,” he says. “We want to help lift up the entire field.

“Outdoor education is not a well-funded field. It’s not a huge priority. If people are funding the environment, they tend to fund advocacy, and that’s individual as well as institutional donors.”

Haifley adds that outdoor education has faced serious hurdles. A previous effort to establish a state program foundered on then-Gov. Gray Davis’s skepticism about whether outdoor education is rigorous enough. Introduced in the Assembly in 2003 by Palo Alto Democrat Joe Simitian, the bill got whittled down to a two-year study.

The results came back in 2005: students who had been exposed to outdoor education scored 27% higher on science test scores than those who had not.

The study validated those groups that have strived to make their programs truly enriching. “It’s not just someone on a hillside pointing at the groovy flowers,” says Haifley.

Lasting Impressions

Education Coordinator Laura Barnes writes the curriculum for OSO and will be aligning it this summer with Common Core and Next Generation Science standards. Barnes says only minor adjustments will be needed to bring the program in line with the new requirements, which she describes as more oriented to applied knowledge.

Barnes also decides which classes get to participate in the program by reviewing teacher applications. First priority goes to low-income classes—“kids for whom most of their life is spent inside and their total exposure to the concept of the ocean is one trip to the Boardwalk.”

Barnes says another part of her job is explaining to school administrators the value of an OSO field trip, which teachers apply for independently and then must have approved. Administrators may be reluctant to approve trips because too many absences translate to reduced funding. “I spend a lot of time on the phone with principals,” she says, “explaining, ‘We can help you reach your educational goals!’”

In the quest to prove its value to skeptics, OSO has a secret weapon at its disposal: a study of long-term effects of its programs conducted by Lauren Hanneman for her San Jose State master’s thesis. Because of its meticulous and innovative methodology, she’s already presented it at several conferences and is about to have it peer-reviewed.

Using old-fashioned shoe leather, Hanneman visited seven middle and high schools in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Santa Clara counties, choosing only those fed by elementary schools that had participated in OSO three to five years earlier. With permission from science teachers in grades 7-10, she surveyed students: what field trips had they taken in elementary school? Then she asked them to write or draw a picture depicting how trash got into the ocean.

(A quick aside: OSO teaches all of its students about "non-point-source" pollution—the road runoff, cat poop, windblown plastic bags and cigarette butts that wind up in the ocean via a zillion little avenues. These can create as much harm as "point-source" pollution, which comes from factories or other discrete sources that can, in theory at least, be legislated into better behavior.)

Of Hanneman’s sample of 261 students, about a third had taken the OSO trip in elementary school. Of that group, 75.9% depicted non point-source pollution. And of those who had taken both the OSO and Watsonville Wetlands Watch trips in that span of time, 93.3% wrote about or depicted non point-source pollution, illustrating a grasp of a complex concept.

When asked the open-ended question, “What do you feel was the most important thing you learned while on the OSO field trip?" Hanneman says 68% answered that it was learning how to help the ocean and/or the effects of ocean pollution. In the world of social science metrics, these figures are about as good as it gets.

“You can’t prove causal relations,” says Hanneman, “but you can prove correlations, and these are statistically valid.”

Applying Knowledge

By the time skipper Mike Egan guides the catamaran back into the harbor at around 11am, the students have rotated through three learning centers. Instructor Adam Steckley has shown them the boat’s onscreen GPS, passed out compasses and had them take readings on the boat’s relation to landmarks onshore (Giant Dipper, Lighthouse, Soquel Point). Instructor Celia Lara has explained why the water here looks green instead of blue (because of phytoplankton, which love cold water) and recruited the students’ help in collecting a seawater sample, which they’ll analyze later. Hanneman has given her marine ecology lesson to two more groups.

Inside OSO’s small complex of offices and classrooms at the harbor, the kids are putting to use the lessons they’ve learned. With Steckley they use data collected on the water to map the boat’s position at the time of their compass readings. In Lara’s room they look at their seawater samples magnified 40 times on a video monitor and see phytoplankton and zooplankton, the latter equipped with whirring appendages that occasionally send them shooting out of the frame.

In Hanneman’s room the lesson on pollutants in the watershed continues. Because plastic doesn’t really go away but is just broken up into smaller and smaller pieces, it can fill animals’ stomachs so that they starve to death, she explains.

The action turns to a 3-D model of a town at the edge of the ocean. Common pollutants—oil from cars, food wrappers, water bottles—are represented by Gatorade powder and baking sprinkles tossed over the town by small handfuls. Then the kids create a “storm” with spray bottles of water and watch the goop run down streets and gullies and into the ocean.

Hanneman drives home the lesson: many of these items don’t have to go into the ocean, and individual action matters.

“Every time you pick up a piece of plastic—whether it’s a Hot Cheeto bag or a water bottle—you keep that one piece of plastic from turning into thousand pieces of plastic,” she says. “Is that making a difference?”


“So this is how you save the sea otters.”

For more information on O'Neill Sea Odyssey, visit O'Neill Sea