WANDER WITH WILDCOAST: Inspiring a New Generation of Ocean Ambassadors

On a sunny March afternoon earlier in the year, WILDCOAST led 20 teens on an adventure through a local marine protected area (MPA) — the Matlahuayl State Marine Reserve (SMR) off La Jolla Shores. As we paddled our kayaks across the sea toward the caves, the students learned about conservation practices, participated in community science research efforts, and explored local geography while keeping an eye out for neon orange garibaldi below the surface.

It was a great day filled with laughter and excitement as for some students it was their first experience kayaking and exploring one of the MPAs that WILDCOAST helps safeguard.

With nature as their classroom these students start building their lifelong relationship with the great outdoors, a sense of discovery, and possible STEM education and careers pathways.

Studies suggest students who participate in these environmental programs are more likely to take conservation action, and many participants of our educational experiences have gone on to lead impactful projects, which help conserve San Diego County’s 17,779 acres of MPAs.

Little did we know that in a few days a global pandemic would halt all of WILDCOAST’s carefully planned field-based conservation outreach and stewardship activities indefinitely.

Suddenly our conservation was faced with a dilemma. How would we continue to connect students with their coastal and marine spaces and inspire a new generation of ocean stewards in this new era of COVID-19? Despite the challenge, WILDCOAST committed to finding a way to continue educating students from park-poor communities and tribes, so we quickly pivoted to online programming.

With 22 staff in four offices across two countries, WILDCOAST has always been innovative when it comes to team building and the adoption of new digital tools for internal communication over the years. This left WILDCOAST uniquely poised to pivot our educational programs to a virtual setting.

Over the last eight months we have taken our two wildly popular field-based programs —  Floating Laboratories and Shoreline Laboratories that we carry out in California — into a virtual space with great success!

These live, virtual experiences for students and educators mirror the in-person shoreline or boat-based experiences we traditionally offer. Students take part in interactive programs about marine protected areas, conduct and present scientific research using Zoom breakout rooms to build upon topics such as: water quality, plankton, and biodiversity, and explore career pathways in marine science.

In a response to an uptick in poaching behaviors in local tidepools within MPAs, WILDCOAST created a lab during which students become scientists by identifying and quantifying organisms, analyzing the data and then drawing conclusions about the benefit of MPAs for intertidal organisms. The program concludes with students brainstorming good tidepooling etiquette and sharing what they will do to be upstanding tidepool ambassadors.

This program has received rave reviews from teachers and participants, such as: “The WILDCOAST tidepool presentation is absolutely amazing. The kids were 100% engaged and so excited” and “It was such a relief to have someone other than me talk to my class and the WILDCOAST presentation was so engaging. My students loved being scientists!”

This summer we hosted 34 Virtual Laboratories with close to 1000 participants!!

And while WILDCOAST cannot wait to safely take large groups of students back into the field, our virtual tidepool demonstrations, watershed experiments, videos, and interactive elements are continuing to safely teach these young minds about the importance of ocean conservation and how they can make a difference.

Although 2020 hasn’t gone as we originally planned, it certainly has been a busy one for us in other ways. This summer, with COVID guidelines and waivers in place, we stepped out from behind our computers and safely resumed some field activities again. We coordinated coastal cleanups and wetland restoration in Southern California.

We created a media campaign about protecting tidepools up and down the California coast and  launched a Tidepool Ambassador program. And on the opening day of lobster season, we carried out extensive outreach efforts in San Diego County to educate anglers and increase compliance with MPA boundaries and regulations.

As we look to 2021 we envision our youth programs to be a hybrid of virtual (for large groups), and in person (for small groups) opportunities. And we will continue our in-field conservation work with strict COVID safety guidelines.

If interested in a youth education program, outreach event, or volunteer opportunity, please contact Lisa Gilfillan, Ocean Conservation and Education Coordinator, at lisa@wildcoast.org.

Please consider donating to WILDCOAST so we can continue to empower the new generation of coastal and marine stewards!