We’ve asked Ethan Estess, one of O’Neill Sea Odyssey’s past students and contributing artists, to share his thoughts about his experience with, and path beyond, the OSO program. Here’s what he had to say….
I visited O’Neill Sea Odyssey in 2000/2001 with teacher George Alexandrov’s 6th grade class from Bradley Elementary in Corralitos. I remember it was a glassy, grey day on the Bay and I was really excited to bounce on the cat’s trampoline as we glided over the dark water. I clearly remember throwing the small neuston net over the side and being totally shocked by the active, alien-like plankton we saw through the microscope projection later. At the end of the cruise, there was Jack O'Neill climbing aboard to say hi to all of us. I worked up the nerve (he was a bit intimidating with the eye patch) and walked up to introduce myself. We shook hands and out of the blue I got the idea to ask him for his autograph. He kindly obliged and I was stoked to have the keepsake to remind me of the epic day on the water.
Without a doubt, my experience with OSO was a key early life event that encouraged me down my path as an ocean advocate, scientist, and artist. It was one of the first times I can remember experiencing the sensation of wonder - particularly in regards to watching the alien-like phytoplankton zooming around under the microscope. I remember thinking, “If all of these things live in a drop of seawater, what else could be out there!”
That sense of wonder was later rekindled in a marine biology class with teacher Greg McBride at Aptos High, who one day presented some new tracking research on great white sharks that revealed their long-distance migrations. My mind was blown, and I knew then that I needed to get involved in that project. I went to Stanford with the primary goal of studying great white shark ecology with Dr. Barb Block, and soon I found myself spending summers conducting shark and tuna research with her lab group in Pacific Grove. During my sophomore year, I was fortunate to spend 5 weeks on an oceanographic research vessel sailing from Tahiti to Hawaii- an amazing experience that gave me flashbacks to my time at OSO!
Throughout college I took art classes alongside my environmental science curriculum, focusing on using reclaimed materials to tell stories about the marine environment. Today, I am focused on making artwork in my Santa Cruz studio while balancing my research activities with the Conservation Science division at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where I have worked for the last few years. Looking back, my time with O'Neill Sea Odyssey as an 11 year-old sparked something that continues to drive my life’s work with the ocean. I think it’s like scooping phytoplankton out of the ocean and looking at them under a microscope for the first time; if you look beneath the surface of things, there’s so much more to learn.
Environmental education is really a form of civic education. It is a way of teaching young people what it means to be a good community member, a good American, and good world citizen. By teaching students about the natural world and its resource - a world that they will soon be responsible for - it clearly demonstrates what is at stake if they vote for legislation that threatens their environment, or if they choose certain behaviors that are damaging to local ecosystems. It’s hard to justify dumping your car oil down the storm drain when you’ve seen a baby sea otter playing in the kelp forest, for example. Establishing these types of social norms is the fundamental goal of environmental education programs, and it is why access to such programs is of the utmost importance.
What does the ocean mean to you?
I’ve been fortunate to make the ocean a central part of my life and livelihood. Growing up surfing and fishing in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, I was lucky to experience what an intact ocean ecosystem really is. Seeing phytoplankton under a microscope for the first time as a 6th grader on the O’Neill Sea Odyssey sparked a sense of wonder that later inspired me to study ocean science in college.
As an undergrad and Master’s student at Stanford I took courses in marine ecology, art, and mechanical engineering while conducting research on great white sharks. Since graduating in 2012, I have worked for the Monterey Bay Aquarium where I travel extensively to tag and release bluefin tuna to reveal their migratory patterns and promote their sustainable management.
Spending so much time on the water has exposed me to the beauty and biodiversity of the ocean, as well as the tremendous sustainability threats facing it from overfishing, plastic pollution, and rapid climate change. I feel a responsibility to communicate about these issues in engaging, accessible ways, and I see my professional art practice as a way of stimulating productive dialogue around ocean protection.
In short, to me the ocean is everything. Everything I learn about it leads me to a new question - just like every wave I catch makes me want to catch another one! Thanks O’Neill Sea Odyssey for sparking my fire and for providing so many kids with foundational ocean experiences!
Thank you, Ethan, for sharing your experience and unique perspective. Your path beyond OSO is a testament to your commitment to ocean conservation. We're grateful for your support and dedication.