On a cliff above Whalers Cove, in front of an iPad mounted to a tripod, Daniel Williford, an interpreter at the Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, looks as if he were taking a very professional selfie. Tourists stop gazing at the kelp forest below, and the view of Carmel Bay in the distance, and give curious looks as he talks into his gadget.
“Boys and girls, at the tip of my finger is a harbor seal,” Williford says, pointing to the cove. “In a few minutes I’ll jump in a kayak to show you close up.”
Williford is giving a classroom of curious fourth-graders in Roseville, California, a virtual fieldtrip of Whalers Cove. Since the program’s inception at Point Lobos in March, he has taken thousands of K-12 students and residents of senior homes from across California on a historical/ecological tour of the park.
“For most of these students, they’ll never have the opportunity to come here to see this unique part of the California coast and the effects of preservation firsthand,” he says, sporting a wide-brimmed hat and khaki park ranger uniform. “Now we get to bring the park to them.”
The virtual field trips, or “distance learning,” as the state of California calls the web-based tours, were created through a California State Parks program called Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students, with additional funding coming from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The PORTS program began in 2004, when multimedia platforms on the internet were still in their infancy. Williford says park interpreters would give interactive tours while standing in front of a green screen inside a studio.
Fast forward to 2016, when Point Lobos and nine other state parks in California are wired with high speed Wi-Fi, and interpreters are equipped with iPads to interact with students through the platform Vidyo, similar to Skype and FaceTime. In the 2015-16 school year, distance-learning programs reached more than 46,000 students in the state through more than 1,500 presentations, the majority tapping into low-income school districts.
On the cliff above Whalers Cove, Williford starts our trip with history, from indigenous people to the Chinese fishermen who started a settlement at Point Lobos in 1851 and were replaced 10 years later by Portuguese whalers.
“The cove is surrounded by forest on three sides, and the Santa Lucia Mountains are right up here,” Williford says, pointing the iPad’s camera toward the east. “Boy and girls, do any of you know why this is called Whalers Cove?”
Kids give a variety of answers, until one says it was where people used to hunt the big marine mammals.
Williford gives an enthusiastic “Yes!” and points to the parking lot and tells the students that’s where whalers would bring the whale carcasses to process.
Taking a quick departure from the theme of human destruction, he points his tripod to a grove of pines up the hill.
“See these trees? They’re Monterey cypress. The only places they grow naturally are here on Point Lobos and across the bay in Pebble Beach,” he says, grabbing a bit of foliage to put in front of the camera. “Point Lobos State Natural Preserve was created in 1933 to protect the habitat of these special trees. But wait, what’s that under the tree?”
Williford then walks over to the skeleton of a whale and picks up a 5-foot-long rib bone, which he holds in front of the camera and asks the students if they know what species it belongs to.
From there, he begins to talk to the students about the cycle of exploitation of the local ecosystem that took place in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Whales were hunted until not many were left in the area, and abalone were harvested until there were none.
“Sea otters were also almost hunted to extinction,” Williford says. “If we keep taking from the environment, it will have nothing left to give. But because we’ve protected this area, wildlife is now thriving and I’ll show you.”
He cuts the feed, and students on the other end watch a prepared video as he dons a wetsuit and takes the kayak out.
On the water, remnants of a heavy swell crash on the rocks that protect the cove, causing his kayak to bob. Williford’s iPad is mounted in front of him, and he pulls up chunks of brown kelp and shows students the small crustraceans he calls “kelp bugs,” or isopods, that live on the aquatic flora.
“Underwater is a forest,” he says with excitement. “It supports fish, otters and other life much like a forest on land.”
A few curious harbor seals who had kept their distance for most of the tour come right up to his kayak.
“Boys and girls, boys and girls, look at this!” He picks up the iPad from its mount and holds it over the water to give the audience an up-close look.
Gasps, screams and laughter are heard from the iPad’s speaker. Williford grins ear-to-ear.