Like many nonprofits, the Ocean Institute took a financial hit during the COVID-19 pandemic after it canceled its major fundraising events and exhibitions.
Since the pandemic, the nonprofit looked to bring in more funds to support its marine education, adopt-a-class and summer camp programs through new events and activities aimed at engaging visitors of all ages.
During the Dana Point Civic Association’s Coffee Chat on Sept. 15, Ocean Institute President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Wendy Leavell shared an update on the marine education and conservation nonprofit’s newest events and activities geared towards visitors of all ages and upcoming changes to the institute’s campus.
Leavell, who started at the Ocean Institute as vice president of education, was named the organization’s president in March 2020.
“In my first, not first 100 days, but first handful of days … I had to cancel the Jazz Fest, which was one of our major fundraisers,” Leavell said Friday. “On March 16, shut down the organization due to social gathering regulations. On March 18, we were to have our big shark exhibition open with congressional recognition—got the honor of shutting that one down too.”
In addition to facing the novel pandemic, Leavell also had to manage the “legal, social, emotional landscape,” in the aftermath of the Pilgrim’s sinking.
“So that was my first two weeks on the job as president,” Leavell said. “It’s been a little bit of a different journey.”
Through the pandemic, the Ocean Institute continued its summer camps, masked, distanced and mostly outdoors.
“We knew that folks just needed that feedback loop, that experience,” Leavell said.
After the loss of the iconic Pilgrim, the Ocean Institute worked to raise funds to restore the tall ship, the Spirit of Dana Point.
“It’s really the community’s boat, and whatever they want to do will come to be,” Leavell said. “People stepped up right away. We were able to do this amazing restoration. So you have this beautiful vessel fully ready and operational again.”
Since the Spirit of Dana Point returned to its slip in the Dana Point Harbor on Sept. 9, 2022, the nonprofit resumed its school field trips aboard the tall ships, as well as public tours and sails.
As the Ocean Institute worked to recover financially following the pandemic, Leavell explained that the nonprofit has launched new events geared to visitors of all ages.
Looking to bring in more of the adult demographic, the nonprofit emphasized its distinguished speaker series.
“I would encourage you, if you think (the Ocean Institute is) just for kids, come to our distinguished speaker series or come on the weekends for our public experiences,” Leavell said. “We’ve introduced more ways for people to participate.”
The speaker series, presented by the Nicholas Endowment, takes place on the first Wednesday of the month and features a variety of speakers such as artists, researchers, explorers and more.
“As far as our educational mission, which is using the ocean as our classroom, we inspire kids to learn, we are rock solid,” Leavell said. “But then we want to go the next rung out, with all of these different community experiences.”
“If you went to the Maritime Fest, it was a record year for us,” Leavell continued. “By doing good, by having fun, people show up, they participate and that helps support the operations.”
During the 2022 Maritime Festival, the nonprofit launched its inaugural Pirate and Mermaid Ball, a chance for guests to don costumes and enjoy live music, food and specialty libations.
Throughout the year, visitors can also enjoy whale and marine life tours, tidepool hikes and more. On select weekends in the summer, visitors can also take a night cruise to witness luminous waves caused by bioluminescent plankton.
During the coffee chat, Leavell also announced that the nonprofit is planning some major renovations to its campus.
“We have the barn … that’s used for school programs,” Leavell said. “We’re renovating that for public programs. Public programs meaning for adults as well. And we’re opening another space within our property, that’s usually only permitted for kids. (It) will be added for adults and families.”
“So there’s a lot you’ll see summer 2024,” Leavell said. “So, I’ll just say, stay tuned to our website.”
Ocean Institute Program Development Manager Kelsey Reimer explained that through the renovations, the nonprofit looks to engage both schools and the public.
Outside of events like the Maritime Festival, the campus’ maritime history barn is primarily used to host classroom field trips and is very school program-oriented, Reimer said. The renovations will add Murphy beds for students sleeping overnight on the Ocean Institute campus and a star ceiling for the nonprofit to use for astronomy talks.
“We’ll be able to have astronomy talks in there, looking at all of the different stars, how different cultures utilized celestial navigation,” Reimer said.
“Really making that a space where we still utilize it for school programming—which is our bread and butter, our backbone—but it’s also a space that the public can now go into and learn the same things that we’re teaching these students when they come on our campus,” Reimer continued.
At the back end of the Ocean Institute campus, in a space that’s focused solely on watersheds, the nonprofit looks to create new hands-on activities designed to teach visitors about surf science such as currents, the Coriolis effect, sand samples and more, Reimer said.
“Our mission is using the ocean as our classroom, we inspire children to learn but our catchphrase that’s located on our logo is ‘experience is teacher,’ ” Reimer said. “So we really want to help the public deep dive into it just as much as we deep dive school programing into it.”
“So that’s the goal with each of these spaces is to showcase the information in a way that is digestible for both our school programming … and our public programming,” Reimer continued.
Reimer added that by bringing more visitors to the campus to enjoy all that it has to offer, the nonprofit works to fulfill its mission.
“We want more people to come to OI and to see who we are and what we do because when we have those people come to OI, it funds our ability to fulfill our mission, which is bringing those schools down and getting those kids seeing the ocean, a lot of them for the first time in their lives,” Reimer said.