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Catch On to the Ocean . . . and a Tonguefish Through Institute

February 22, 2001|PHIL DAVIS

Snorkel with a scientist. Pluck glowing organisms from the dark depths of the Pacific. Explore the brig of a 19th century sailing ship. Try to hold on to a slippery tonguefish--a sea creature that lives up to its slimy name.

The programs at Dana Point's Ocean Institute share a common philosophy: Nothing gets people more fired up about learning than hands-on experience.

Each year, more than 80,000 students, from kindergarten through high school, get their first taste of marine biology at the institute's headquarters at Dana Point Harbor. Some of the programs are open to the public on weekends.

The institute is undergoing a major renovation, so most programs are based on the research vessel Sea Explorer, a 71-foot ship outfitted with high-tech video microscopes and a special camera so passengers can watch dolphins surfing on the bow wake.

The Sea Explorer offers cruises similar to commercial charter boats--whale watching and Catalina Island snorkeling--with a twist of science.

"You're snorkeling with a marine biologist," said Adam Willingham, the institute's at-sea program coordinator. That means when you dig in to your barbecue sandwich back on the boat, you'll understand the crucial role kelp forests play in marine ecology.

"It's all hands-on," said Mike Bursk, the Sea Explorer's captain. "Kids can actually touch and learn about marine life."

The Sea Explorer offers five cruises, including a daylong cruise searching for the elusive blue whale, which sometimes feeds in the deep waters beyond Catalina Island. The center is also home to the Pilgrim, a 98-foot replica of a sailing vessel destroyed by fire in 1845. The original Pilgrim visited Dana Point several times as it ferried goods from New England to California.

The center also offers a tide-pool exploration program at the Dana Point Marine Life Refuge. The focus is on gentle exploration techniques that preserve marine wildlife.

"We are the stewards of the refuge," said Rick Baker, director of the institute's At Sea department. "Our aim is to protect it so that future generations can visit the animals."

Ocean Institute programs cost a little extra. For example, a whale-watching cruise costs $22 for adults and $16 for children--double the typical rate. But Bursk said it's worth the additional $8.

"We are really good. Nobody does what we do better. And that's a fact."

* The Ocean Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point, (949) 496-2274, http://www.ocean-institute.org.

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