Anticipation filled the air as the boys and girls climbed out of the bus. Excitement was the perfect mask for the trepidation that some felt as this was their first experience with the ocean. It was fun to once again see the faces that I had photographed weeks before in the classroom as they prepared for this day. Each year Marine Life Studies, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization, takes kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Monterey County out whale watching on Monterey Bay. Prior to the trip the kids learn about the marine life they could possibly see on their outing and are taught about the importance of ocean health and the role each of them play contributing to it. This program is one of many that Marine Life Studies offers. Earlier in the year they involved the kids in an environmental program called Take it to the Streets™, where they are taught about the problem of ocean trash and as a group help prevent it by cleaning up trash in their area that could easily end up in the ocean through waterways.
It was inspiring to watch as the kids began to comprehend the vast marine life of the bay, and imagine what they might see on their trip. The conditions couldn’t have been more ideal: the water calm with the brilliance of every shade of blue glistening on the horizon against a cyan sky. With final instructions given, we were on our way toward the dock. My husband and I were both part of the volunteer team. Our role for the day was to photo document the kids experience.
I couldn’t help but notice one young man as he stepped onto the boat, was already looking a little green. I asked him, “Are you okay?”
He gave me a nervous nod and said, “I’ve never been on a boat before.”
“Wow, High five! You are so courageous!” I replied. A quick slap and smile ensued and he found his place on the rail. Soon we were all loaded and 45 kids lined the rails of the boat as we left the dock
Peggy Stap, founder of Marine Life Studies, began to pass out crackers and talked with each of the kids. I loved seeing the joy reflected in her eyes as she personally interacted with them. It was evident that her passion goes far beyond her time intensive research, as she empowers others by sharing her knowledge and love of marine life and igniting passion for it. It was inspiring to see her share it so personally with the next generation. She had a team of volunteers strategically stationed around the boat to provide constant support for the kids insuring their safety. Each of them impressed me as they interacted with the kids. They, just like their mentor, loved what they were doing. Two of the volunteers, Georgia and Ben, are twins. They started off with the program as students and are now in high school and have returned as leaders. Perhaps this is just a tiny sampling of just what kind of a difference a program like this can make.
I checked in on the nervous young boy often. His nerves continued to challenge him, but he was strong. There were a few kids that had come on the trip in prior years. I was impressed at how keen their eyes were at spotting a variety of jellies as we made our way across the bay. They began to tell me about the things they’d seen on past trips. It was clear that this event had left a deep impression on them. The excitement of seeing their first whale was still evident as they retold their experience to me.
We began to see a multitude of spouts off in the distance. The kids began to shrill with excitement as they watched for the humpback whales to surface that were feeding just ahead. There were so many whales; it was difficult to know where to turn to look. They would blow and then dive. We watched for a while then much to our delight they began to lunge feed. This is where multiple whales work together to round-up the bait then ascend on it at the same time. Several whales broke the surface together as they shot straight up with their mouths wide open. I was able to snap a shot with a couple of them still upright. It was a beautiful sight. What was even more beautiful was the expression on the kids’ faces. Their eyes were filled with amazement. I loved listening to the laughter, and the squeals of delight. Pure Joy is the only way to describe what was felt.
As I was scanning the horizon to watch the whales I was surprised to see a large pod of common dolphins literally ascending on the boat. It was surreal. They were spread out over a large area, but all coming directly towards us. It was as if they had come to play with the kids. Our attention quickly turned from lunge feeding humpbacks to these playful creatures. The captain of the boat started to move the boat forward hoping they would ride the bow.They did just as he anticipated and more; playing in our wake, and swimming along side the boat leaping clear out of the water delighting us all as the captain made a few loops around. This was an incredible opportunity to see the dolphins engaging fully as he paced them perfectly. What a thrill it was to experience this, but even more to see the kids experience have this experience themselves, “Could this day get any better?” I asked myself.
Just then a mother and calf began to breach not far from where we were. The kids literally gasped when they saw the baby whale come out of the water, then was in pure amazement to see the contrasting vast size of it’s mother when she breached next. They continued to breach repeatedly and the boat became almost silent for a brief moment as the kids watched, then spontaneous applause erupted. I think they had said everything they could to describe how they felt, and found themselves speechless, but simultaneously felt a wave of gratitude for this incredible experience. We watched as long as we could but time had come for us to return.
As we turned the boat around, most of their eyes stayed focused on the direction of the whales until they were too far in the distance to see. Then a gentle calm rested upon the kids. A small group of them sat on the side deck, reaching down to feel the spray as the boat moved quickly back across the bay. They now felt connected to this water that first felt so foreign to them. I listened as the kids discussed what they had just experienced.
One of the older students has come on the trip for several years. He is a tall boy whose stature reminds me of my own boys. Easily mistaken for being much older than he is. As we were heading back he began to express a great concern he had.
“Next year I turn 14, but I think it will be two weeks after the trip, so I think I will be able to go next year, but I don’t know what will happen after that.”
Once again I was being reminded of just how important this program was to these kids. He was already beginning to dread the day he couldn’t come. It made me realize how important my job is in helping raise the funds to make sure there is a trip next year and the years to follow, and I even found myself asking could we do more if we had more? I told him,
“Did you know that Ben and Georgia were once students just like you, and they are now volunteers. Perhaps when you are too old for the program, you can become a volunteer. Why don’t you talk to Peggy and find out what it takes to do that?”
“You mean I might be able to volunteer for Marine Life Studies and help with the program? He quickly responded.
With that he went in search for Peggy. I turned to see my previously nervous young friend standing next to me. His face was no longer filled with worry, but a soft smile. I asked him,
“Well what do you think now?”
He turned with a smile that will forever leave an impression on my heart as he said;
“I wish this day would never end.”
“I’m so glad you were courageous and you didn’t let your fear keep you from being here today!” I said quietly just to him.
He smiled and said, “Me too.”
The older boy returned; his concerns were replaced with hope after talking to Peggy. “She said usually volunteers are 16, but she may be able to make an exception for me!”
“High five! Way to go!” I marveled.
I recognized the depth of this program is much like the canyon in Monterey Bay. It runs deeper than anyone can comprehend from the surface. Courage, service, gratitude, confidence, cooperation, ambition, and hope were just a few of the byproducts I saw result from participating in this program.
I am so grateful to be a part of it. I commute a few days a month from Utah to California to volunteer for Marine Life Studies. It’s a nonprofit organization committed to protecting our ocean by acquiring knowledge through on-going research. Effectively share and utilize that knowledge to encourage conservation, and inspire the public, especially children, with educational programs, to prepare the next generation of marine mammal and ocean conversationalists. There are no paid staff positions but a dedicated team of volunteers that truly believe in their purpose and in those they serve enough to give of their time and resources. I’m glad I get to do my part, and know it truly has an impact on those we serve.
You too can make a difference! In October we are having our big annual fundraiser. I’d like to invite you to participate. If you can’t attend the event, we are looking for donations for our silent auction or you can make a financial contribution by going to: http://www.marinelifestudies.org/
The fund raising event is featured here: http://www.marinelifestudies.org/index.php/News-Splash/marine-life-studies-flip-for-whales.html