An inside look at the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s plans for a new Exploration Center and what it can mean for Santa Cruz
What does it mean to have a sanctuary lapping up on the shores of Santa Cruz? It’s a variety of things. No oil drilling, for one. Some regulations about things that can be legally taken out of the water, and more regulations about things that can’t be legally tossed into it.
But what the sanctuary designation is really about is spreading the word. It’s a fragile ocean out there, and it needs protection. Even in an environmental stronghold like Santa Cruz, that word sometimes doesn’t get out. Let’s face it. For most residents and visitors here, the sanctuary may not mean much—except for the satisfaction that you don’t have to stare out at oil platforms.
“Most people never have the opportunity to experience the ocean beyond the shoreline,” says Paul Michel, superintendent of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. “There’s a lot to discover and learn about Monterey Bay, and it’s important to bring these unique features to the public in an engaging way.”
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is the largest of 14 such declared areas, ranging from Hawaiian waters to the ocean off New England. Something akin to the National Mark System, the Sanctuary system carries with it special rules and regulations about allowable uses. The National Marine Sanctuary system is run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In a nutshell, sanctuaries are set up to curb pollution and to increase visitation, enjoyment and education.
BAY TIMES Well, aren’t we lucky dogs? We reside right by a marine sanctuary. Now, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary hopes to keep locals and tourists reminded of that fact with a new Exploration Center in Santa Cruz. Photo by FRANS LANTING
Monterey Bay’s designation as a sanctuary may or may not touch the lives of most of us; even those who surf every day probably don’t stop to mull over the existence of a sanctuary when they’re heading out into the waves. Fishermen do think about the sanctuary. Some have their doubts about intrusive regulation. But so far, the benefits outweigh the problems. A recent study presented before the American Association for the Advancement of Science went so far as to say that sanctuaries, in general, “help make nearby fisheries profitable by acting as nurseries for fish larvae that are later spread by ocean currents.”
But to the general public, the sanctuary is largely a question mark. Unlike a trip to a national park, a visit to a marine sanctuary by definition involves a boat, a surfboard or scuba equipment.
The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is about to build its Exploration Center, a kind of visitors’ center near the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Construction will begin in July at the site where Otto’s Fun Spot (later, called the Fun Spot) used to greet passersby with the iconic sign: “Follow the Washington Senators.”
The spot is one of the most visible in Santa Cruz. And that’s not by accident. NOAA held workshops and did studies about where to place the visitors’ center. And Santa Cruz, near the Boardwalk, won out, largely because of the huge number of visitors.
Will all those visitors stop by the Exploration Center? Most folks think so.
Frans Lanting, the internationally known National Geographic photographer who got his start three decades ago taking pictures along West Cliff Drive, puts it this way: “We have a world-class marine environment on our doorstep. And pretty soon we’ll have a new facility that will help interpret this for locals as well as visitors. We ought to be really proud of this.”
Michel, the Sanctuary superintendent, concurs. “We will inform and inspire that there’s actually a marine sanctuary,” Michel says. “Our goal is to inspire people about the ocean; once inspired, we’re hoping that people will delve more into this remarkable system.”
SEAL THE DEAL Marine life abounds in the Monterey Bay, something the Exploration Center will illuminate.
Photo by FRANS LANTING
Wait. Isn’t that what the Monterey Bay Aquarium does? Isn’t that what the Seymour Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz does?
Actually, they’re all different. In fact, the Exploration Center will be just one of several facilities and programs in Santa Cruz that have sprouted up since the sanctuary was dedicated in 1992. Among them:
• The Seymour Marine Discovery Center, founded in 2000. It’s part of the Long Marine Laboratory research and education facility of UC Santa Cruz. It’s located on the Westside, at the end of Delaware Avenue.
• O’Neill Sea Odyssey, founded in 1996 by wetsuit innovator Jack O’Neill. The 65-foot catamaran, the Sea Odyssey, has introduced more than 50,000 school-age kids to the waters off Santa Cruz, where they learn about plankton, the food chain, navigation and, yes, a love of the ocean.
• Save Our Shores, an advocacy group founded in 1978, not only advocates on the political level, its staff and members have coordinated countless coastal cleanups, and no less than former U.S. Congressman and current CIA director Leon Panetta says that the sanctuary designation would not have been possible without this organization’s advocacy.
So how will the new Exploration Center fit into this pantheon?
Unlike the Seymour Center, there won’t be squishy marine animals at the Exploration Center. “It’s more about being a gateway … a first step for people to learn about science,” says Michel, the sanctuary superintendent.
In fact, he says that the Exploration Center will lead more people to discover the Seymour Center … and the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Over at the Seymour Center, Julie Barrett Huffington, the facility’s director, sees things the same way. “We focus on making science and research real, alive, tangible and relevant for the average person. The new Exploration Center will have a ‘front and center’ Santa Cruz location that will draw from millions of visitors who come for the Boardwalk/Beach area.
“They’ll introduce the ‘stroll-by’ tourist to the Monterey Bay, and then help them learn how to experience it in depth—go rent a kayak, visit the Seymour Center, go whale watching.”
The Path Toward Knowledge
What all these institutions and groups share is a value on knowledge about the ocean. When it comes to environmentalism, there’s more to it than just the political battlefield over whether to build or block a new development. Too often, it’s the fight that Santa Cruz is known for.
Fred Keeley, the former assemblyman who himself is responsible for significant legislation related to ocean protection, acknowledges the piece about education. “So much of our environment depends on inter-generational stewardship to survive,” he said in a recent conversation. “The air we breathe; the ocean we enjoy; the vast richness of plants and animals in our world all depend on an educated populace. Our public schools are the critical venue for educating the next generation of responsible citizens who will preserve and enhance our natural environment.”
Lanting, the nature photographer, sees it the same way: “All of us are just beginning to grasp the enormity of issues in marine environment because the ocean has been such a dumping ground for so long. Now there’s a need to expand awareness to the ocean. Education is a linchpin in all this.”
That’s pretty lofty stuff, but there’s someone else around Santa Cruz who has been educating the masses – and having some serious fun along the way.
Meanwhile, Out on the Water
One thing about Jack O’Neill: Stuffy he is not. The 87-year-old surfing pioneer and inventor of the wetsuit has done more to bring an awareness of the ocean than anyone I can think of. And he’s done it with a sense of wonder, joy and fun.
Shortly after I moved to Santa Cruz, in the early 1970s, I saw a hot-air balloon out off Sunny Cove beach. The bright colors of the balloon mingled with the deep blue of Monterey Bay right behind it, and that familiar O’Neill logo identified the pilot as Mr. O’Neill himself.
I mentioned the balloon to a Santa Cruz native, and she sniffed: “Oh, that’s just his latest toy,” dismissing the entire outdoors venture.
Nearly 40 years later, it’s hard to dismiss O’Neill, the man or his company. He’s probably done more than anyone to celebrate the oceanic environment and in particular what is now known as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
“I remember when I first went in the ocean,” O’Neill said in a recent interview in his house by the bay, the one right on the cliff in the Pleasure Point area. He’s lived there for years, using it as a base for all things oceanic. “There just was something special. Something that changed me forever.”
It was in 1952 that he opened a surf shop—called simply “The Surf Shop”—in San Francisco. It was there that he began tinkering with the one thing more important to surfers than the surfboard itself—the wetsuit. In 1959, he moved the shop down to Cowell’s Beach—near the site of what will be the Discovery Center. From there, he started selling his creation, and generations of surfers, swimmers, kayakers, windsurfers and kite boarders have done more than just admire the waters; they’ve become part of it all.
FRONT AND CENTER The proposed Exploration Center will be located near the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf. Courtesy of MBNMS by r. hoyen
Sure, ocean sports are fun. They’re big business. But they also have helped in another deeper, more significant way. There’s an awareness of the ocean environment that just might not have been possible without O’Neill, his invention, his business and his legendary surf shop.
And it goes deeper. Perhaps O’Neill’s greatest legacy is the one that gives some school kids their first taste of the ocean environment, their first taste of marine science and their first appreciation of what has been designated as a “marine sanctuary.”
O’Neill has funded and founded an organization called the O’Neill Sea Odyssey, a program designed specifically for school kids who get an opportunity, some for the first time, to actually board O’Neill’s 65-foot catamaran and get out on the water, actually onto a marine sanctuary. Sometimes they luck out and see otters and occasionally porpoises or whales. Sometimes they just get to check out the kelp, learn about plankton and find out, for the first time, what the coast looks like from out in the water. They also learn how fragile the ocean can be—and the danger posed by all sorts of human-caused pollution.
One recent spring afternoon, I joined some kids from Sunnyvale Middle School for a spin out of the harbor and out toward Lighthouse Point. Under the careful watch of skipper Mike Egan, the 30 or so students were treated to that magical time of being out on the water. Marine experts and O’Neill employees Laura Barnes, Erica Pittman and Isaiah Meyer took turns in showing the kids why seaweed is important, what microscopic plankton looks like under a microscope and how sailors navigate to their destination.
The sunny day, the wind filling the sails, the excitement of the kids combined to make our trip exactly what O’Neill must have envisioned when he started the program. “Jack thinks of this is as his greatest contribution,” said the Sea Odyssey’s executive director, Dan Haifley.
By introducing schoolchildren to the ocean, O’Neill hopes that it will provide for them a sense of the importance of their environment and of Monterey Bay. He said that once he arrived in Santa Cruz—he knew he was here for life. From his house right on the cliff at Pleasure Point, he’s not gone a day without being in, on or near the ocean. “The ocean has been very comforting to me through the years. When you get all screwed up, and you jump in the ocean, everything is all right again.”
His particular joy is introducing school kids, particularly inland kids, to the ocean. “They take a lot of good ideas away with them about the ocean.”
In the sometimes factionalized world of Santa Cruz, O’Neill has remained is a popular and much-recognized figure, especially as he wears a patch over one eye due to a surfing accident long ago. In asking around about him, I’ve never heard a bad word from anyone.
But my favorite O’Neill story comes from someone that doesn’t even know him: my brother.
“I was out watching my daughter at a Junior Lifeguards competition,” he says. “All of a sudden I noticed this guy on his cruiser bike. He had a hat on and great big grin on his face. It was Jack O’Neill. And he sat on his bike for the longest time, just sitting on his bike, watching the kids in the water. How many CEO’s of big companies would do that?”
Meanwhile, the groundbreaking for the Exploration Center is set for July 12. Funding for the facility largely comes from the federal government, but local businesses and individuals are being asked to come up with the final $3 million, mostly to fund exhibits, including films, multimedia and artwork. The fundraising arm is made up of a group of Santa Cruz area people, including the chair, Fred Keeley, the county treasurer and a former Assemblymember. Other committee members include former Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, Seaside Co. President Charles Canfield, City Councilwoman Cynthia Mathews and other local business leaders.
The fundraising effort is sailing directly into the teeth of the recession, but so far, about half the needed money has been pledged.
Take a virtual dive under the bay waves . . .
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