Camp SEA Lab Director Amity Wood explores a tidepool with two campers. (Krista Almanzan/KAZU)
For kids growing up on the Central Coast, actually getting to the ocean can depend on their socioeconomic status or where their families live.
Some young people surf and explore in the tidepools, while others never visit Monterey Bay. But here's some good news: the Monterey Bay region is teeming with programs to inspire the next generation of marine scientists, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Point Lobos, just south of Carmel, attracts kids from all over the region. It’s a place where they can see whales migrating off in the distance and get up close with smaller sea creatures during low tide.
This summer many of those young people were kids and their counselors from Camp SEA Lab. It’s a weeklong camp where kids go surfing, kayak on the bay through kelp forests and explore the Elkhorn Slough Estuary, a nearby protected ocean inlet. Campers can be as young as 8.
“It’s a great time in their life for them to explore their questions and natural curiosities, so we want to direct those into something that drives their passion or interest in the ocean environment,” says camp director Amity Wood.
Childhood curiosity inspired her to pursue a career in marine science, and she hopes to create that same experience for the next generation of kids.
“This is the job I want to do. I want to be a marine biologist and then I’m going to be an archaeologist and I’m probably going to be a scuba diver, too,” says 8-year-old Hennessy Brown from Gonzales.
At about $370 a week, some kids are simply priced out of this opportunity, so Camp SEA Lab offers scholarships.
“So those are specifically targeted toward underserved youth. Most of them come from the Salinas, Castroville area,” says Lorili Toth with the Elkhorn Slough Foundation, which funds some of those scholarships.
Elkhorn Slough is the second-largest salt marsh in California and is nestled between the largely agricultural and low-income communities of Castroville and Watsonville. The slough offers many educational programs and hosts school field trips.
“We get students all the way from Palo Alto and Carmel coming up because they can afford transportation. But the local schools sometimes can’t afford a bus. The high school, which is less than 5 miles from us, actually had to cancel a trip because they couldn’t afford to pay for the bus to bring their students here,” says Toth.
So this year, the Elkhorn Slough Foundation created a bus fund to help schools in need with transportation. Teachers can apply for mini-grants to help bring their class to the slough.
Toth says it means a lot to reach these kids because they live in the watershed of this slough that conservationists have spent decades trying to protect.
“All that could go to naught if we don’t inspire the next generation,” says Toth.
The next generation -- like Gina Carrillo. The slough is where Carrillo completed her first marine science research project back in 2006 and where she fell in love with marine science. She was just 16 years old and part of the inaugural class of a Monterey Bay Aquarium program called Watsonville Area Teens Conserving Habitats, or WATCH.
WATCH works with local high schools, including Carrillo’s alma mater, Pajaro Valley High, which serves a primarily Latino community. Many of its students are children of immigrants.
“At that age, you know a lot of family expectations, a lot of pressure to contribute and help out, and summer jobs should be priority in the culture. And so if we had to pay for it, definitely wouldn’t be able to participate,” says Carrillo.
So the aquarium covers the cost of the program, which begins with a summer camp and continues in school with a class and student research. Students who complete the program, graduate high school and go to college also receive a $1,000 scholarship.
For Carrillo, the WATCH program is an experience that brought her full circle. She now works at the aquarium as a bilingual education specialist. Her job includes leading a program that connects Head Start preschoolers to the ocean, where some of the kids are the children of her high school classmates.
“I love that I know where they are coming from, and it’s a little bit easier for me to gain buy-in from these parents because I came from their community,” says Carrillo.
She also shows kids that they can follow their dreams and come back to do something positive, all while helping the ocean in their backyard.