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Ocean Connectors Shapes the Next Generation of Environmental Stewards

6th grade Ocean Connectors students
6th grade Ocean Connectors students perform habitat restoration in partnership with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

By Sarah Beauchemin

Over 70 miles of pristine coastline defines San Diego County. But many residents in underserved communities here – children in particular – have never even visited the ocean. They may also lack an awareness and understanding of marine life and conservation, or feel powerless to get involved.

Ocean Connectors has made it their mission to change that.

Founded in 2007, Ocean Connectors is a nonprofit program that exists to educate, inspire and connect underserved youth to the ocean. This is accomplished by delivering a curriculum focused on migratory marine life to fourth through seventh graders in the underserved community of National City. The organization has reached over 10,000 children in National City to date.

Ocean Connectors

“The main mission of Ocean Connectors is to provide free environmental education programs in National City, and we are now reaching the entire public school district there,” said Frances Kinney, Founder and Executive Director at OC. “This is such a huge accomplishment for us because it means that every single child attending a National City public school goes through our programs for four years.”

5th grade Ocean Connectors students attend whale watching field trips
5th grade Ocean Connectors students attend whale watching field trips with OC partner Flagship Cruises & Events

In addition to the in-class learning activities, OC’s programs offer students exciting ventures like coastal field trips and involvement in hands-on STEM activities. Students also get to correspond regularly with their counterparts in OC’s “sister program” in Nayarit, Mexico, which teaches them the importance of global connectedness.

Connecting Youth to Conservation

OC introduces students to ocean conservation through fun, creative ways to track the migratory patterns of local marine life.

“We use migratory species to educate and inspire students because these are the animals they see in their own backyard, so to speak,” said Danielle Tentschert, Program Associate at OC. Tentschert provides all OC in-class lessons and leads the OC annual field trips.

To learn more about Ocean Connectors’ work and how you can support our programs, visit us online.

Each grade level studies one migratory species and the associated environmental issues threatening its health. Fourth graders focus on sea turtles, fifth graders look at whales, sixth graders study birds, and in their newest program, seventh graders learn about sharks.

Student planting native plants
Ocean Connectors students make a direct contribution to helping the environment by planting native plants around San Diego Bay

“It all begins with raising awareness,” said Tentschert. “First we teach them about the problems, then we give them the capacity to make changes – simple things that they can do daily in their own homes to be better environmental advocates.”

The positive impact of OC’s programs on students is significant. For example, student knowledge of marine life, ocean STEM and sustainability increases by an average of 10 to 30 percent every year. And following their participation in OC’s programs, 70 percent of students continue to take positive environmental actions on a regular basis.

These impressive statistics have continued to grow due to eight years of generous funding through San Diego Gas & Electric’s Environmental Champions grant program.

SDG&E has been an essential part of helping OC grow and achieve their key goals. The Environmental Champions funding has assisted in delivering classroom presentations and coastal excursions focused on migratory species, and informing children about critical climate-related risks like unpredictable weather patterns, species and habitat loss, and sea level rise.

“You can really see the kids’ passion for learning flourish,” said Tentschert. “Getting out of their day-to-day lives opens up creative talents they may not have realized they had, or new possible career opportunities in environmental stewardship.”

How OC’s Eco Tours Fund the Important Work

Another source of funding for OC’s youth programs comes from their Eco Tours, which they launched in 2015 to the public, and are available year-round for ages six and up.

The tours – featuring turtles, birds, whales, and sharks – are an affordable, fun and charitable way for people to experience these endangered migratory species up-close and personal in a tranquil setting.

Sign up to attend an Ocean Connectors Eco Tour, which supports our goal of connecting youth for conservation.

Besides the fact that the Eco Tours support OC’s unique mission to connect underserved youth to the ocean, Eco Tours stand apart from traditional bay tours in other ways.

“There is a very unique ‘Ocean Connectors experience’ that you get on our Eco Tours,” said Patrick Levin, Eco Tour Coordinator at OC. “Our tours are led by our own staff members, who aren’t just tour guides, but are experts in marine science and conservation. They’re extremely passionate and knowledgeable, and have a real sense of reverence for the work they do. It’s an intimate, personalized experience between our guides and guests.”

Students encounter a sea turtle at the Living Coast Discovery Center
4th grade Ocean Connectors students visit Living Coast Discovery Center to learn about sea turtles firsthand

Guests also get to visit parts of the San Diego Bay they likely wouldn’t see otherwise, like kayaking into the Chula Vista Wildlife Preserve, a tidal flat in South San Diego Bay. This gives guests the chance to see directly into the habitats of endangered shorebirds and sea turtles firsthand, something that isn’t possible on most other bay tours.

“The Eco Tours generate a real, measurable social impact,” said Zach Birmingham, OC advisory board member and Senior Environmental Specialist at the Port of San Diego. “It’s an investment of sorts. When people book an Eco Tour, the investment they make is passed along to someone who might not get that benefit otherwise. That’s really the beautiful part of the tours. The chance to contribute to something greater than yourself.”

You can book a personalized Ocean Connectors Eco Tour for yourself, friends or your whole family year-round. To learn about other ways to help Ocean Connectors cultivate a future generation of passionate environmental stewards in San Diego, visit Ocean Connectors online.