"Just look at the world around you
Right here on the ocean floor.
What wonderful things surround you.
What more are you looking for?"
"Under the Sea," from the Disney animated film, "The Little Mermaid"
OK, so blowfish don't blow sax and blackfish rarely sing the blues. There are still plenty of interesting critters under and around the deep blue, and this summer, families can come face to fin with many of them at the Orange County Marine Institute in Dana Point. The nonprofit research center offers a variety of day camps and cruises for children ages 6 and up.
The institute, situated at the west end of Dana Point Harbor, is designed to give children and adults a better understanding of the sea through the study of marine science and natural history. During the school year, the center hosted more than 70,000 preschool to college-age students in nearly 40 different classes.
The learning continues through the summer, with a large measure of family fun mixed in.
Each Friday evening from June 28 to Aug. 23, the institute will host its popular Floating Lab Dusk Cruise, a 2 1/2-hour trip aboard the 65-foot Sum Fun that offers a basic primer on ocean research while introducing landlubbers to animals from three distinct life zones.
Under the guidance of trained naturalists, participants will examine a variety of free-floating organisms, screen through gooey sea mud in search of brittle stars and mustache worms and examine such bottom-dwellers as scorpion fish and flat fish. (All the animals are returned to the sea after capture.) Cruisers also may catch a glimpse of larger sea mammals, including dolphins and California sea lions.
According to Marine Institute associate director Harry Helling, the dusk cruise is an enjoyable learning experience for young and old.
"More than anything, people see that the ocean is not just a big swimming pool," Helling said. "We have shown them the food chain, from the smallest animals up to some of the larger marine mammals we see on the way.
"People came away not just with an appreciation of this environment, but with a better understanding of the issues that confront it, such as pollution, overfishing and natural diseases" that affect ocean life.
And, added Helling, unlike the controlled environment of Sea World and other aquatic parks, the cruise is a genuine field experience in which anything can happen.
"There's a real sense of adventure every time we leave the dock," Helling said. "You never know what's going to come up with our net."
Helling suggests cruisers bring a heavy jacket, wear rubber-soled shoes and bring cameras and binoculars. Cruises depart every Friday at 6 p.m. from the institute's dock. Participants also are advised to arrive at least 15 minutes before departure; reservations are recommended.
Meanwhile, back on shore, children ages 6 to 8 can explore tide-pool animals and marine mammals in a Junior Sea Camp. The five-day sessions, which begin June 24, include naturalist-led visits with sea stars, octopuses and other residents of the Marine Life Refuge, home of some of the best tide pools in Southern California, Helling said.
For older children, there's the five-day Wind and Ocean Camp, which combines recreational time on the beach with a painless lesson in sea history. Part of the session will be spent aboard the Pilgrim, the institute's 130-foot replica of the ship that Richard Henry Dana Jr. sailed around Cape Horn. On the ship, campers will re-create the life of the 19th-Century sailor, swabbing decks, raising sails, singing chanteys and showing off their new skills in an end-of-session "Tallship Olympics."
The Wind and Ocean Camp is open to ages 9 to 13, with sessions beginning July 8.
What: The Orange County Marine Institute summer programs.
When: June through August.
Where: 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Camino Las Ramblas exit, north to Dana Point Harbor Drive.
Wherewithal: Dusk cruise: $11 to $22; Junior Sea Camp: $82; five-day Wind and Ocean Camp: $140.
Where to Call: (714) 496-2274.