It could begin with a single drop of seawater, brought into focus under a microscope. Or perhaps it begins while snorkeling, where one can see the rich array of life in an underwater kelp forest.
But no matter how it starts, one thing holds true: Gaining knowledge – and inspiration – begins with discovery.
That is the essence of Camp SEA Lab, a multi-faceted summer camp run by CSU Monterey Bay that awakens youth – local and elsewhere – to the wonders in the waters off our shores. It’s an essence neatly summed up by the camp’s acronym: science, education, adventure.
From June to August, SEA Lab hosts both residential and day camps, five-day-long sessions that each focus on a specific area of study like tidal zones, plankton or sharks. (There are also two programs – Girls Love Science, and Girls Love Science Too – that are girls-only.)
Campers get inspiration to care about those focuses by way of adventure and discovery: things like sand crab surveys, tidepooling and whale watching. Or from more active pursuits, like surfing, boogie boarding and kayaking.
“It’s a program designed to capture their curiosities, their interest,” says Amity Wood, SEA Lab’s managing director. “They’re going out and seeing things in nature. It’s very experiential in that sense.
“When we get the kids out there snorkeling, they’re really getting connected to the ocean, so they can learn to care about it.”
And perhaps what makes SEA Lab’s summer camps so unique is that once campers get inspiration, they begin to realize that, if they want to, they can make a career out of it.
“The kids are exposed to a lot of the opportunities CSUMB has for studying marine science,” Wood says. “They can go out on the research boat, and see what the college students are working on.
“If you have an interest in marine science, what do you do with it? What are the academic courses? What are the jobs?”
Camp SEA Lab has answers, which come in part by campers being exposed to students who are taking those courses, and by talking to researchers who are doing those jobs.
And by staying in CSUMB’s dorms, Wood adds, campers start to get the sense of what it feels like to be a college student.
SEA Lab – which was founded in 1997 with seed funding from the Packard Foundation, the California Coastal Commission and a California Sea Grant – is also a year-round operation, and hosts school groups at a facility in Aptos in every season of the year except summer. And Amy Glover, SEA Lab’s field coordinator, gets to see year-round the kind of impact the program has on youth, many of whom come from places far from the coast.
“We’ll get a group from the Central Valley, and it will be their very first time seeing the ocean,” Glover says. “When they come up to you and say, ‘This is the best week of my life,’ then you know you’re doing something amazing.
“Or, I have never seen a whale before and now I saw five,” she adds.
Every week from June to August, SEA Lab has a rotating program of residential and day camps that – taken together – capture nearly the full spectrum of marine science subjects. The essence of each is captured with names like Snorkeling for Adventure, Drifters of the Deep, School of Sharks, Flukes & Flippers and Elkhorn Slough & You!
At night, the residential camps have traditional camp experiences like a beach bonfire with s’mores, but far less traditional ones as well, like dissecting a squid.
Wood stresses the camp isn’t just aimed at inspiring future marine scientists, it’s about making every kid, no matter what they want to do in life, a future ocean steward.
“[The camp] gets them more aware about ocean conservation issues, and our diverse ecosystems,” Wood says, before rattling of a slew of local marine-related habitats kids can learn about.
“It gets kids excited about science,” she says. “We draw a lot of connections between where they live, and the ocean, through watersheds. They come to understand how important the ocean is and how they’re connected to it.”
But the camp, especially in summer, is also about kids being kids, and making new friends.
“[Summer] has more of that camp atmosphere, of playing games and learning to work together as a group,” Glover says. “But within that learning, we’re able to pull in an array of marine science activities they can learn from.
“They’re just so excited and that’s all they’re talking about. They get completely involved and soak everything up.”