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Posted on: November 5, 2018

Watsonville at the Helm: O'Neill Sea Odyssey Provides a Rite of Passage

wats at helm

City officials pause to appreciate a beneficial partnership with O'Neill Sea Odyssey that has spanned nearly two decades.

Where ocean access is a hard-fought right for many in Watsonville, the O'Neill Sea Odyssey program provides a gentle rite of passage for Watsonville youth. The City of Watsonville has been a long-term supporter and partner of the O'Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), a friendship spanning over 17 years. Throughout this history, more than 7,000 Watsonville students have been provided with a free, all access pass to the Monterey Bay. In celebration, Watsonville City Council Member Felipe Hernandez and Mayor Lowell Hurst honorarily joined the crew, catching a glimpse into what a day looks like with Watsonville at the wheel.

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This particular morning was a bright blue and blustery Friday in late October, the kind of day that lures a sailor out to sea. A chorus of nervous and excited chatter slowly erupted from the 2nd floor deck of OSO's harbor-side office where 30 students from Radcliff Elementary anxiously awaited their journey. Erin Legoretta and her 5th grade class was soon met by a trio of enlivened instructors, who began to prepare students for what would become the boat ride of their lifetimes.

Snugly fitting each child into a life vest, the seasoned educators expertly explained the safety logistics of their upcoming departure. This was no small detail, as the majority of these students had never been to the harbor, on board a boat, or out to sea in the Monterey Bay. What followed could be most accurately described as magic. Over the next several hours, student groups took equal turns rotating through educational stations on board the 65-foot catamaran, immersing in concepts such as bay ecology, navigation, and plankton, which secretly encoded less popularly termed subjects including biology, physics, and math. While the program indubitably delivers hard science, there seems to always be room for fun. At a moment's notice, the boat's captain spotted a whale breach a few miles out. Without skipping a beat, every instructor adeptly adjusted their lesson plan, attuned their students' gaze to the open ocean, and leapt into facts about whale migration. Experiential education takes its lessons from nature as teacher, and thus requires accommodation and patience. It is clear that OSO's instructors are no newbies to this pedagogy.

Upon returning dockside, the class visited OSO's science classroom where they viewed their retrieved plankton under high powered microscopes, triangulated their boat's position on the bay using the data they transcribed while at sea and without GPS, and began to comprehend urban hydrology and water flow through the lens of a watershed model. 

unnamed (8)The conservation messages were abundant, yet they surfaced from student inquiry and were woven seamlessly into organic conversations. "We are not apart from nature, we are a part of nature," OSO instructor Lauren Hanneman reminded her enraptured audience. Students were gaining something much greater than a lesson plan to be forgotten after the weekend, they were finding their confidence in science and environmental protection. Mayor Hurst glowed. "It's a hands on sailing experience with a laboratory and science-based curriculum that will also last a lifetime in their memories."

In a community where resources never match the need, and the struggle to make ends meet feels endless, this program is a shining beacon of hope. The majority of Watsonville's young people live within four miles of the world-renowned Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the crown jewel of a network of coastal marine protected areas and one of nature's greatest science classrooms. Unfortunately, the majority of Watsonville's youth do not have consistent access to this same coastline, let alone consistent engagement in hands-on science. 

Council member Hernandez could relate as the trip represented the first time in his life that he got on board a vessel in the Monterey Bay. "It was great to see kids from my neighborhood come and learn about the marine environment, all while sailing on-board the O'Neill Sea Odyssey catamaran. I wish I could have had these experiences when I was young."

unnamed (7)While prioritizing this program for the City of Watsonville has been no easy dance, the multitude of enduring benefits far outweighs the costs. Watsonville, like all California cities, is mandated by the state to provide stormwater education to its residents, to connect the dots between actions on land and impacts in the watershed and ocean, and ultimately uphold the sanctity of public health. Watsonville is fortunate in that there is no better teacher than O'Neill Sea Odyssey and the results are undeniable. A San Jose State University study found that 75% of students who participated in OSO 5 - 7 years prior had retained knowledge about non-point source pollution, as well as stewardship values, taught in OSO's ecology curriculum. "O'Neill Sea Odyssey connects Watsonville and Pajaro Valley students to the ocean, watersheds, and environmental science like no other program can," explained Mayor Hurst. He continued, "It's a real game changer when it comes to protecting our coastal resources for future generations." Council member Hernandez chimed in; "I would encourage all 4th through 6th grade teachers to apply for the O'Neill Sea Odyssey program."

Prior to deboarding, each student had an opportunity to have their hands behind the wheel and steer the boat with the support of the captain, crew, and all of their classmates, a fitting metaphor to summarize their entire experience. The health of the Monterey Bay is truly in their hands. These students are not only the next wave of environmental stewards, they are budding and empowered scientists and ocean adventure seekers in their own right.

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