A cold grey wall of fog blankets Santa Cruz on a Friday morning in mid-June. From a distant perch above the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor, one can see a meandering line of children in dark green T-shirts winding their way down the eastern rim of the harbor, slowly but ever-so-surely making their way to a destination near the beach.
The students—participating in the Nueva Vista Community Resource program in Beach Flats—are here for the marine stewardship program hosted by the O’Neill Sea Odyssey (OSO), and while they may not know it quite yet, they are marching toward history. Sometime this summer—the date is uncertain, but likely in September—the widely heralded nonprofit will officially count its 100,000th participant in the organization’s 22-year operation.
In the building adjacent to the Crow’s Nest restaurant, a trio of highly trained ocean stewards—OSO Education Coordinator Laura Walker, and instructors Lauren Hanneman and Joey Rodrigues—gather the students together, secure life jackets on them, and prepare them for an afternoon at sea. At first it’s a bit like herding young kittens (or as Rodrigues jokes, “young squirrels”); their energy is kinetic and unfocused. But in a matter of minutes, they are molded into shape and ready for their launch aboard the imposing 65-foot Team O’Neill catamaran.
I have been a passenger on various craft in Monterey Bay for the better part of six decades, and much to my surprise, I still get a rush of pleasure and excitement going out to sea. The views from the catamaran are muted on this foggy day—much like the work of American Tonalist painters in the late 19th century—and the panorama quickly captures a view from Lighthouse Point to Pleasure Point, with the Santa Cruz Mountains providing a dark backdrop in the distance. If any place feels like home to me, this does.
On their two-hour journey into the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the students will encounter lessons in marine biology, environmental protection, and the basics of navigation. The instructors make each educational platform a hands-on experience. The kids are enthralled.
Shortly after leaving the harbor, and just a few hundred yards off Black Point, we encounter more than a dozen sea otters (quite nearly extinct when I was the age of the children on the boat), and then a host of various sea birds gracefully glide by—murres and egrets and cormorants and pelicans—and it’s different seeing them from the ocean’s surface. The magic and various glories of the maritime universe take on new meaning when you are in the middle of them.
One critical piece of information that OSO teaches its participants is about “non-point-source” pollution—road runoff (oil, gasoline, etc.), animal feces, plastic bags, Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts ad infinitum that wind up in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary through storm drains, rivers and creeks. No matter where the kids are coming from—and many come from Santa Clara County—they realize they can have an impact on protecting the oceans from outside threats.
Let me acknowledge that, much to my surprise, this old salt learned a lot of new things about marine life during the sail. This was my first time on one of the Sea Odyssey excursions in several years, and at each stage of the journey I learned something new—about various types of plankton, about current threats to the marine environment (the amount of plastics in the ocean is staggering) and even the common murre, which, as instructor Hanneman explained to me, dives to depths of nearly 100 fathoms (600 feet)! It was an absolutely inspiring experience.
You could see by the excitement on the faces of the kids, that the two-to-three hour experience would make an indelible mark on their lives. As one young student said to me when we spotted our first sea otter, “This is so cool. I wish that I could take my entire family out here. They won’t believe it!”
Indeed, for many of the students—and for most students who participate in the program—their voyage on Team O’Neill marks their very first time on the ocean. Hanneman, a 13-year veteran of the OSO program, wrote her master’s thesis specifically about the long-term impacts of the program by tracking participants into middle and high school. Fully 75 percent of students in Hanneman’s study manifested long-term retention of materials taught to them in the OSO program. By the time they arrive back on shore, the students become lifelong warriors on behalf of ocean stewardship. There’s hope.
[Drop Cap] The O’Neill Sea Odyssey program was founded in 1996 by the late Jack O’Neill (1923-2017), the innovative surf gear and clothing entrepreneur whose ultimate legacy, I would argue, is less about wetsuits and surf shops than about the program he envisioned in the 1990s for turning his catamaran and yacht harbor offices into a maritime program for young students.
If O’Neill was the founding visionary of the Sea Odyssey experience, then the man at the tiller of the program for the past two decades has been its executive director, Dan Haifley.
Raised in the suburbs of Orange County, in Rossmoor, near Seal Beach, Haifley credits his father, a retired Sea Scout, with encouraging his lifelong love affair with the sea. “He told me stories of his six-month Pacific trip when he was a teenager, and it sort of captured my imagination,” Haifley says. And, as a teenager, Haifley also began paying attention to offshore oil drilling operations just north of him, near Long Beach.
A steady and energetic presence in Santa Cruz since he arrived here in 1977 as a student at UCSC, where he majored in economics, Haifley has long been at the center of the community’s political zeitgeist. He first cut his chops at the activist organization People for a Nuclear Free Future, working with would-be Santa Cruz mayors Jane Weed and the late Scott Kennedy.
In 1986, Haifley was hired to run the Oil Information Program of Save Our Shores (SOS), at a time during the Reagan presidency when the entire coast of California appeared to be up for grabs to the highest bidder. The year before, voters in the City of Santa Cruz had passed an ordinance by 82 percent which basically put a stop to oil drilling locally by requiring a vote of the people for any changes in zoning to accommodate onshore facilities for offshore operations.
At Save Our Shores, Haifley was essentially hired to replicate the initiative up and down California. Even with the threat of lawsuits from oil companies looming over his efforts, he got more than two dozen of them passed.
Most significantly, Haifley was viewed as the go-to guy on the ground for delivering and stewarding ocean protection legislation in California. In the early 1990s, Haifley used his perch at SOS to work closely with then-congressman Leon Panetta and the Center for Marine Conservation (now the Ocean Conservancy) to form an environmental coalition that pushed for the largest possible boundary for the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary—the largest in the United States. The legislation was passed by Congress at Panetta’s behest in September of 1992. Haifley, as Panetta once said to me, was the “field lieutenant” of that effort.
Shortly thereafter, at an SOS event celebrating the Sanctuary, O’Neill (who had become strongly supportive of SOS and environmental protections for the oceans) told Haifley that he was “interested in using his 65-foot sailing catamaran to get students on the water to learn about the ocean.” From that initial discussion, O’Neill Sea Odyssey was born.
The rest, as they say, is history. OSO offered its first classes in December of 1996; it incorporated as a nonprofit in 1997, and by May of 1999, Haifley had been hired as executive director, where he’s been at the helm ever since. This past April, he announced his retirement at the end of the year.
In advance of an all-encompassing event this coming weekend celebrating OSO’s 100,000th student, to be held at Cowell Beach, I interviewed Haifley—married to his wife Rebecca, a retired teacher with the Pajaro Valley School District, and the father of two children, Aaron and Julia—about his thoughts on the program he helped create, his retirement and the state of the oceans today.
We’ve discussed this before, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I knew Jack [O’Neill] since I was a kid, and I felt like Jack had something of a rebirth around the OSO program. When I talked to him about it, he was always very excited. It seemed to add new meaning to his life.
DAN HAIFLEY: Yes. He had established his company as a leader in the surf industry, and in the 1980s began to think about how the ocean could be protected. He knew instinctively that the sea was comprised of an interwoven matrix of life. The engineer in him figured out how that system operated, and the promoter in him understood that if students learned about that system at a young age, they would become its life-long protectors.
People forget about his fascination with science and engineering.
Right. From 1988 until his death, I had countless conversations with him about the ocean’s systems. For example, he was interested in the North Atlantic current—which is key to moving warm water from the tropics northward, and is a reason that Europe has a moderate climate—and its role in mitigating the effects of climate change. He was interested in what was happening with ocean acidification, which is an outcome of the ocean absorbing excess carbon from the atmosphere.
He was a ‘waterman’ in the purest sense of the word.
Jack O’Neill always tinkered with wetsuit designs and how swells work along the coast, and he applied that same analytical mindset to ocean health. His legacy in promoting ocean awareness and health started with his own curiosity and drive to make things better. He took it to the next step by deploying his boat and the building at the harbor, and some money to get O’Neill Sea Odyssey started.
I didn’t realize that.
Yeah, he and Tim O’Neill gathered a team that included Jack McLaughlin, Theresa Coyle, Jim Holm, Carl Keehn, and members of Save Our Shores to develop a program. I was hired in 1999, and so was Laura Walker. Today she runs the program, working with over 200 teachers a year, scheduling classes, community service projects and providing scholarships.
Jack seemed to love what was going on with the program.
Jack moved his family to Santa Cruz in the late 1950s to building a family-oriented market for surfing. That naturally led to his passion and drive to protect the ocean. The wetsuit business and O’Neill Sea Odyssey were two sides of the same coin for him. He believed that getting people in the water bred familiarity with it, which lead to a desire to protect it.
What’s the biggest impact of your program on the kids?
Most of the students who participate in our program have never been on the ocean. In fact, most people in the world have never been on the ocean. Getting out onto the ocean to explore its intricacies and learn to protect it is not a prerequisite to a life of stewardship, but it surely helps. O’Neill Sea Odyssey instructors use hands-on learning, which is a very effective complement to book-based and lecture-driven learning. People learn visually and kinetically, as well as by listening. I see it as an immersion in science and stewardship using the ocean field trip, classroom curriculum, and community service. Being a free program allows us to serve students regardless of background. You never know where the next Rachel Carson will come from.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the oceans today?
Plastic pollution and climate change, which changes the water’s pH, are the two biggest stressors on the ocean today—though there are many others. When I go out and promote O’Neill Sea Odyssey in the community, I am asked about what the biggest threat to the ocean is, and I say that everything we do in our everyday lives such as tossing a cigarette butt on the ground, or getting into our cars, affects everything on Earth, including the ocean.
What does the 100,000th student mean to you?
We are now at 99,236 students, and at the rate of 25 students per class, we will likely serve our 100,000th student in September, if not before. I know it’s just a number, but it represents our team’s skill, which causes those teachers to keep bringing students to us. The idea of a campaign to count down to 100,000 was the brainchild of Adam Steckley, our Operations Coordinator. It enables us to use social media to tell the stories of our instructors, our students, and their experiences.
Dan, I’ve known you for 40 years and you’ve always walked with a steady purpose. It’s hard to imagine you are really retiring.
I am really retiring. My wife has been retired for a few years now, and when I turned 60, I decided it was time to pass the baton. My job has been to promote the program, raise funds and implement the board’s direction, and a new person will be able to do that with new energy. I will work in the garden, go kayaking, and volunteer. I am still on the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council and I just joined the Board of the new Monterey Bay Chapter for the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.
GT: So ‘retiring’ in the Haifley sense.
[Laughter] OK …
GT: Any final thoughts?
Haifley: I am grateful to everyone who makes O’Neill Sea Odyssey work, every day. They are true ocean heroes.
100,000th Student Schedule of Events
Sunday, June 24, Cowell Beach, 1-4 p.m.
1:00-1:30 Check-in at registration table. Samba Stilt Circus dancers greet attendees. Gather in parking lot.
1:30-2:30 City of Santa Cruz street dedication (David Terrazas) and OSO milestone remarks (Dan Haifley).
2:30-4 Entertainment, food trucks, beach activities, and sailing charters.
Performance art by Samba Stilt Circus (1-1:30)
Food trucks (1-4)
City of Santa Cruz dedication/OSO announcement (1:30-2:30)
Live music by The Wavetones (2:30-3, 3:10-3:20, 3:35-4)
Hula dance troupe with Lorraine Kinnamon (3:00-3:10 & 3:20-3:30)
Raffle ticket drawing and closing remarks (3:30-3:35)
Beach cleanup with Save Our Shores (11:30-1:30)
Surf rentals with Club Ed (1-4)
Sand art by Bill Lewis (1-4)
Face painting with Sophie and Audrey (1-4)
Photo booth – What does the ocean mean to you? (1-4)
Marine debris art with Theresa & Rachel (1-4)
Public sailing with O’Neill Yacht Charters (2-2:45, 3-3:45, 4-4:45)
SOS information table (supplying own tent, table and chairs)
Face painting table
OYC reservation table and raffle ticket sales
Marine debris art exhibit/construction
Jack O’Neill portrait oil painting sales