O’Neill Sea Odyssey News


Instructor Spotlight: Lauren Hanneman

An interview with 14-year OSO Marine Science Instructor Lauren Hanneman: Educator, Academic, Role Model, Environmental Steward.

What attracted you to this position at O’Neill Sea Odyssey in the first place? Why do you love what you do?

I started working for OSO in 2005. My path to working for OSO was rather convoluted. After I graduated from University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) with a combined degree in Bio/Environmental Studies, I began working as staff for NOAA’s TeamOCEAN program as a kayak naturalist. Around the same time, I was also hired by the Chardonnay as a whale-watching naturalist. Ironically, prior to this opportunity, I had very little direct experience working on the ocean and zero boat experience. After a few seasons of working on the Chardonnay, I was approached by Steve Spiliotopolis, a senior deckhand who also worked for OSO at the time, and he recommended that I apply for OSO. I was introduced to our program manager, Laura Walker, and I’ve been with OSO ever since.

So much has changed throughout the 14 years I have been with OSO. I went to graduate school and received an MS in Environmental Studies. In 2013, for my thesis project, I conducted a study of the long-term impact and effectiveness of the O’Neill Sea Odyssey by focusing on students who had attended the program three to five years prior. Specifically, I wanted to determine whether OSO fostered a long-term awareness of the connection between ocean stewardship and personal responsibility among student participants.

In order to quantify the long-term impacts of the program, I focused on their artwork and the use of mental models, aka, their worldviews. My research showed that 75% of previous OSO participants sampled retained teachings from the OSO program that focused on the connection between their daily behaviors and ocean pollution. After I received my Masters degree, I began working as a college lecturer at Cabrillo College, California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB), and San Jose State University (SJSU). It is a very different platform and I do enjoy it immensely.

Despite all these years and transitions, what has not changed is my love and dedication to O’Neill Sea Odyssey. I have watched our program reach the 75,000 students milestone, then the 100,000 students milestone. I have witnessed thousands of children experience the ocean environment for the first time.  I have sailed in beautiful weather and in squalls, and the wildlife we have encountered is extraordinary. Fourteen years later, I can still say that being an instructor for OSO has given me some of the most rewarding and memorable experiences in my life.

How has your education experience here changed over time? Have you noticed anything different with our students over the years?

In some ways, being a teacher in 2019 is more challenging than it was in 2005. We live in an age where many children rely on devices to experience the natural world, if they experience it at all. Although some of the students are more informed about current environmental issues, they are less connected to the natural world and their unique place in it. For many students, this is their first time on a boat, or even to the ocean. Most of our students attend schools that do not have the means or capabilities to provide any real education out of the classrooms. For these reasons, OSO, and all outdoor, hands-on educational programs are so crucial in today’s world.

Knowledge alone does not change patterns of behaviors or necessarily inspire, but when it is coupled with feelings of ownership and attachment as well as a reminder of the students’ own personal power, then a miraculous connectivity and transformation occurs. OSO provides this opportunity in a way that no classroom ever could, and the children, especially in current times, are thirsty for it.

As a lecturer at other local learning institutions, why is it important for you to teach outdoors and with younger students? Does any of this experience translate to the time that you spend in the college level classroom with young adults?

It’s funny, I tell my college students all the time that teaching younger students who are at these formative ages is so much easier than teaching young adults. This remarkable period in a child’s life (from ~9-12) can have some of the most lasting impacts.

Research has shown that most adult environmentalists cite outdoor experiences in nature as one of the most significant settings of their childhood. This is a time of wonder and development.  OSO, as well as Watsonville Wetlands Watch, Return of the Natives, and so many other experiential outdoor environmental programs provide the experiences that our digital culture are increasingly lacking. 

I often find myself recounting stories and anecdotes from my weekly OSO charters with my college students. When I took one season off from OSO and only did classroom teaching, I found myself uninspired and flat. Although I now teach up to seven classes a semester, I always keep my day on the boat. I cannot inspire my college students to connect with their own sense of wonder of the world if I am not doing it myself. And to be a part of the OSO program, is to see the natural world through a child’s eyes.  I firmly feel that programs like OSO are how we begin to heal the unnatural rift between humanity and our natural world.

Do you have a favorite aspect about this job? Any incredible experiences that stand out, stories, etc, that you would like to share?

There are so many “favorite” aspects to this job.

The crew: I have worked with many of them for years, some for over a decade. We are a team; we are family.

Working on the ocean: my office is literally the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, as seen from a catamaran. The calm days, the squalls, the changes of the season, the wildlife encounters.  Every day is unique and different.  Boredom is NEVER a factor.

The students: I have born witness to so many “firsts.” First time on a boat, first time raising a sail, first seal lion encounter, first time seeing a whale, an otter, dolphins. First time seeing the microscopic world of plankton and all the creatures we share this earth with that we would never know are there…and how much of it can exist in one single drop of water.  Most importantly, how much what they do matters. Many of our students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and do not have a lot of control over their circumstances. OSO provides a different lens of seeing the world, a wider lens, in which they matter, their choices matter, and what they do, everyday, has an impact far greater than what they can see.

Standout experiences:

Yes! I do have a few standout charters. Being in the middle of thousands of sooty shearwaters during a feeding frenzy. It was like being in a cloud of birds, they were all you could see and hear, in all directions. Probably terrifying to anyone who watched Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (based on true events involving the sooty shearwaters in Capitola). For me, it was pure magic.

Speaking of pure magic, we once found ourselves in the middle of a pod of hundreds of white-sided dolphins right outside the harbor entrance.  We could hear them clicking and echolocating off the hull of the boat. This was the first and last time I have ever encountered a super pod and it was hands down one of the most amazing OSO charters. 

But the biggest standout would have to be a summer charter we did with Nueva Vista School a few weeks after Jack O’Neill died, in 2017. Tim O’Neill was the skipper that day and it was the first charter held after Jack’s passing. Normally OSO charters are short, but we did not have our normal time limits on this day. Tim decided to take us south, to Capitola.  It was there that I saw the great white sharks for the first time.  They were highly visible, slowly swimming about, and at one point, came within seven feet of the boat and the net. This was especially poignant as we were experiencing the program that Jack started, with our community of students, with his son Tim at the wheel.

As a young child, did you have a/any formative experiences in nature that led you towards this line of work and profession?

I was fortunate to grow up all over the country. My family is originally from the Midwest (Ohio) and we moved every few years before I finally settled in Santa Cruz. I have lived in Michigan, Ohio, New York, southern California, southern Florida, the Bay Area, and Monterey Bay.

There were a few standouts. The first occurred when I was eight years old and living in Mission Viejo. I vividly remember seeing a skinny coyote on the side of the road, in the middle of the day, staring at me as drove past. Across the street, bulldozers were working and churning up the former wildlands to make way for future housing. There was also a weekly “rattlesnake round-up” in which rattlesnakes were rounded up and killed and mountain lions were shot on sight. But that coyote burned an image in my young brain.

When I was nine, we moved to southeastern Florida. My formative years were spent in Parkland, where my backyard was the Everglades. Snakes, lizards, insects, armadillos, turtles, birds, alligators: these were daily encounters. Yet even in fourth grade, I was outraged by the devastation I witnessed in the ‘glades. The Florida panther was down to less than 50 individuals (and still is), every living manatee had scars from being hit by boats. Roadkill was the method by which I saw most amphibians and armadillos. But worse of all, I watched the Everglades slowly disappear for the sake of progress. You could say that experience set me on a path I have been on ever since. 

I remember it all, just as I know the students we teach today will also be exposed to potential snapshot moments that will, hopefully stay with them for the rest of their lives.

We are so grateful for Lauren.

There is no greater gift that we, as educators, can give to students other than the awareness of their connection to this world, and especially, to nature. We are not apart of nature, we are a part of nature. OSO enables this message to be delivered to hundreds of students, every single week.

– Lauren Hanneman

This interview has been edited for clarity.