50 States – Leg 1: California – The Giant Squid Problem

I suppose it was an appropriate start for an expedition about the oceans: Wet. A cold January morning rain pounded the Washington, DC sidewalks as I dashed, carry-on in tow, to catch a ride to the airport. Fortunately, a taxi driver quickly took pity on the umbrella-less, rapidly saturating figure waving his arm on the corner, and, in keeping with DC taxi cab tradition, I was soon in deep and interesting conversation about current events and, of course, politics.

The expedition kicked off at Sassarini Elementary in Sonoma, CA. 400 students participated.

The expedition kicked off at Sassarini Elementary in Sonoma, CA. 400 students participated.

We were both anticipating millions of visitors to DC for the Inauguration of Barack Obama, and reflecting on the presidential election. We marveled at the remarkable turnout and engagement of young people in the election and agreed that they weren’t likely to disengage. Our nation’s youth is a major player in today’s political movement. The driver pointed across the Potomac toward the Capitol, “It’s a wakeup call to Members of Congress.” I saw his smile in the rearview mirror.

Leg 1: California

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The Dollar Rent A Car agent at San Francisco International Airport was pushing the extra insurance so hard I felt compelled to deny it, doing my best to beam confidence that his precious Dodge Caliber would stay out of harm’s way. At last at the helm of my first ExpeditionMobile, I journeyed onto the freeway, into the fog, and toward the Golden Gate Bridge. I made the same drive when I was 22, having cashed in all my savings for a TWA plane ticket, a cheap hotel, and subcompact rental car. The ocean was calling me, and I left Philadelphia for the West Coast in search of a career in marine science and conservation. I was lucky enough to find it and spent more than 12 years in California before I left for DC. It still feels like home.

Stop 1 : Sassarini Elementary School: Sonoma, California (January 7, 2009)

If you send an email to Julie Jehly, Watershed Stewardship Coordinator for the Sonoma Ecology Center, you’ll get this autoreply, “Hi – The state has suspended funding the grant that supports my position, and I do not know the date I will return to work.” Julie was the one who reached out back in October to bring me to Sassarini Elementary School. But in the meantime, the California state budget woes had hit her hard. I know from my work running a nature center in Florida that Julie’s work is critically important, helping to mobilize the community to become aware of and protect its environment. She had recently organized dozens of volunteers, which collected more than a ton of garbage in less than three hours from Fryer Creek, Nathanson Creek and other creeks in Sonoma.

She has continued many of her duties – including coordinating my visit – for no pay. Julie, whose job involves recruiting volunteers from the community for the Center, was now herself a volunteer, something that 400 young students should be grateful for.

A beautiful gift from the students at Sassarini School

A beautiful gift from the students at Sassarini School

Soon it was showtime, and the first 200 students, first and second graders, made their way into the cafeteria, which had been hastily converted into an auditorium. They took their places on the floor as Principal Leticia Cruz began the introductions and reminded the students to stay quiet. I was happy that they didn’t. “Ooooooooooo. Woooooowww!,” they exclaimed when the first images of a scuba diver flashed onto the wall. I relished their shrieks of wonder and delight, which went on for a full hour.The third and fourth graders were equally engaged during the second hour. I couldn’t have asked for a better kickoff for the project!

I asked for a show of hands of how many kids wanted to be scientists when they grew up. I was pleased to see lots of hands. Wow…science is cool again. I asked how many were ready to come with me in a submarine to explore the oceans. Just a few hands this time. Perhaps some more time in the swimming pool first.

On the way back to my hotel, I stopped in Petaluma at the studios of TWiT (This Week in Tech), where Leo Laporte, a tech guru who hosts a syndicated radio show (“The Tech Guy”) and a podcast network of tech shows beams his content around the world. I had stopped by to thank Leo personally for his leadership in the podcasting arena, the advice he had provided over the years and for his influence in helping me use the latest tech tools to share my work on the Internet. Dane Golden, the studio manager, unexpectedly asked me, “Do you want to go on the air right now with Leo…live?” I thought about it for half a second, “Sure!” And so I got to thank Leo in a very public way. As I left I heard him speaking into his microphone, “You never know who’ll drop in at the TWiT Cottage.

Project DeepSearch: A sub capable of reaching the deepest depths of the ocean

Project DeepSearch: A sub capable of reaching the deepest depths of the ocean

The next day I began the long drive south to Ventura County, and as I passed through Oakland realized I had to stop to see the latest technological developments at Deep Ocean Engineering and Research (DOER), under the watchful eye of its president, Liz Taylor. I was excited to hear Liz tell me the latest about Project DeepSearch, the goal of which is to construct a next-generation manned submarine capable of “full ocean depth.” The last and only time human beings visited the deepest part of the oceans was 1960 — we’ve never returned, and no submarines exist today that are capable of the journey.

Stop 2 : Ventura High School: Ventura, California (January 9, 2009)

The ExpeditionMobile at Ventura High School

The ExpeditionMobile at Ventura High School

I would be giving three speeches before the day was done, the first two back-to-back at Ventura High School, close enough to the Pacific to taste it in the morning air. The fog quickly vanished and the magnificent Channel Islands appeared. When I had lived here I served as president of the Friends of Channel Islands National Park. I remember camping on the islands, touring them, and thinking that this is what California must have looked like before freeways and strip malls. Stunningly beautiful, and perhaps the best kept secret in the National Park System because they are usually invisible from shore, blocked from view by even the lightest fog, so that even residents are surprised when these magical islands suddenly reappear.

At Ventura High School, an always-effervescent Linda Southwick greeted me with her bright smile and ushered me to the auditorium. Nearly 20 years ago I had been Linda’s boss at a consulting firm I had co-founded in Ojai, California called EcoAnalysis. Now I see Linda had found her true calling, as a mathematics and AVID teacher.
(AVID [Advancement Via Individual Determination] is a college prep program for students who are often economically disadvantaged and underachieving which enables them to succeed in rigorous curricula, enter mainstream activities in school, and increase their opportunities to enroll in four-year colleges.)

The students were great, full of energy and interest. But that transition from elementary school to high school does take its toll. When I asked how many people thought being a scientist was “cool,” only one young woman raised her hand. (For the record, it really is cool.) Two hours, two lectures and 200 students later, I was in Linda’s classroom, very much enjoying her interact with her students. I was moved by her obvious deep dedication to her students and their success. She’s tough and means business, but she also knows how to make learning fun.

Stop 3 : Ojai Rotary Club: Ojai, California (January 9, 2009)

Booked long before the idea of this expedition, the Ojai Rotary Club became an honorary stop on the expedition, the only non-school stop on the journey. I thanked program chairman, Jack Jacobs (Jacobs & Jacobs, CPAs), one the finest CPAs and tax accountants in the country, for inviting me to my former home, Ojai, nearly a year ago. That’s why the expedition was launched in California. It was a crowded house, and though they didn’t “ooooo” and “aaaahh” like the elementary school kids, they were very engaged with the presentation. Ojai is a special community, sometimes described as an “eclectic artisans community,” a sometimes haven for actors not wanting to live in the Hollywood scene, a place for horse lovers, professionals, and all sorts of interesting cottage companies, including ours, EcoAnalysis, which was started in a garage. Though we didn’t quite become Apple Computer, we did employ 30 people at one point. And, yes, Ojai is where the fictional bionic woman was supposedly from and is where the classic Lost Horizon was filmed.

It was an inexplicably smog-free, traffic-free drive to LAX to board the flight back to DC. I reflected on my interaction with those elementary school kids in Sonoma and chuckled to myself thinking about some of their responses to questions I asked. “What are some of the biggest problems in the ocean?” I asked. A young boy in the second row said, “Giant squid?” I smiled. I called on another boy in the last row, “Sharks?” he asked. But as I thought about it, maybe their answers weren’t so silly. Maybe they were thinking about themselves as part of that next generation of ocean explorers, but feeling a bit fearful of encountering giant squid and sharks down there. Maybe…

2 replies
  1. Sara Beth Cowgill
    Sara Beth Cowgill says:

    will you come to West Virginia?? I would love to see you. Do you speak only to children, or can adults come to listen?


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