The nonprofit Ocean Institute has been using the sea as its classroom since 1977.
There’s one place in Orange County where families can learn about tidepools, whales and sharks while possibly happening on some pirates and mermaids if the time is right. That’s at the Ocean Institute.
The Dana Point-based nonprofit has been educating 100,000 children, teachers, parents and visitors annually through more than 60 marine science and maritime history programs since 1977. And yes, that sometimes involves mermaids and pirates.
“Running a nonprofit like the Ocean Institute provides a unique set of challenges and rewards,” said Dr. Wendy Leavell, president and CEO. “It requires a strong commitment to the mission, creative fundraising and effective management of resources. It’s a labor of love, fueled by a passion for ocean education and conservation, and we’re committed to our mission. It’s important to remember that the Ocean Institute is a one-of-a-kind facility, no one else does what we do and we are mindful of the impact we have on our guests and schools who come to see us.”
The Ocean Institute is unique in another way — its leadership team is made up of mostly women, and some are working moms.
“Having team members with families ensures that we hold ourselves to a high standard in terms of developing our programs,” said Leavell. “We ask ourselves, ‘Would we want our own children or relatives to have this experience? How would they like it? How can we make it better?’ Having school-aged children in our larger OI family keeps the needs and interests of our core visitors in mind.”
She said their day-to-day operations are intentionally family-friendly and it’s not unusual to see team members’ children at the Ocean Institute in the afternoon or summer. They also have flexible schedules and allow remote work as needed.
“Female leadership at the Ocean Institute can serve as an inspirational example for young girls and women interested in marine science and education,” said Leavell. “It demonstrates that women can excel in leadership roles within traditionally male-dominated fields and contribute significantly to the organization’s success.”
Ultimately, the Ocean Institute never loses sight of the original mission: “Using the ocean as our classroom, we inspire children to learn.” Though Leavell said this at first meant providing educational programs exclusively to school children through field trips. Over time, this has evolved to include public programs for visitors of all ages.
“The Ocean Institute typically offers a variety of programs, such as marine science classes, whale and marine life tours and educational events,” said Leavell. “New programs will focus on emerging marine science research, and unique twists to our typical fundraising events, while returning favorites include popular events like Spooky Seas, Distinguished Speaker Series and Sharks After Dark.”
Part of continuing these programs as a nonprofit involves fundraising events. They currently have their biggest fundraisers planned for 2024, including a ‘Sea’Cret Soirée, which will be a speakeasy circus on March 23, and their Pirate and Mermaid Ball, wowing gala guests with sirens, sea shanties and a treasure trove of other surprises on Sept. 14. They will also host their usual array of educational, fun and family-friendly events throughout the year.
The public can support the Ocean Institute through donations, volunteering, participating in programs, renting their facilities for private events and spreading awareness about its mission.
“Many people may not realize that the Ocean Institute is a nonprofit, so increasing awareness of the community’s essential role in our existence is a big part of our work,” said Leavell. “The Ocean Institute plays a crucial role in educating the public about the ocean’s importance and fostering a love for the marine environment. Its continued success depends on the support of its community, partners and passionate individuals who share its commitment to ocean education and conservation and to accessibility to marine sciences. Our mission is at the heart of who we are and the passion of our staff and supporters is felt when you walk through our doors.”
By Jessica Peralta