Dedicated stewards from the Laguna Ocean Foundation have worked to sustain ocean ecosystems for the last 20 years, and their work isn’t done yet.
By Tanya A. Yacina
Established in 2003 by a small group of Laguna Beach residents, the Laguna Ocean Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to the maintenance and health of Laguna’s marine and coastal environment. Poised to celebrate its 20-year anniversary this fall, the foundation’s mission remains to sustain ocean ecosystems.
“We try to ask basic key questions like, ‘How is climate change going to affect our coasts? How are human activities affecting our beaches, tide pools and wildlife? What ecological and economic benefits do our marine environments provide? What does it mean to have a living ocean?’ ” says Rob Lee, managing director of Laguna Ocean Foundation. “With a better understanding, we’ve been able to put together an integrated program that provides cost-effective, innovative and long-term solutions on education, community leadership building, conservation practices and policies, and public-private partnerships.”
According to Lee, the upcoming anniversary event will recognize the people who have contributed to the foundation’s purpose and success. The event will also highlight the group’s journey from the past and explore what’s needed in the next seven years to achieve the goals in the Vision 2030 report.
“It’s been amazing how the city of Laguna Beach and local businesses such as The Ranch [at Laguna Beach] and Montage Laguna Beach resort have supported us in our growth,” Lee says. “We will continue to find solutions for many of the environmental and social issues that we face here and elsewhere—climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, pollution, microplastics, invasive species and the list goes on.”
While the Laguna Ocean Foundation’s work is local, its lessons have a wider reach thanks to special programming.
Tide Pool Teachers
Education reigns supreme with the Tidepool Educator Program, which enlists the expertise of specially trained teachers and volunteers to provide information about local marine life to visitors. Limited only by tide level and weather conditions, visitation sites include Heisler Park, Treasure Island, Crescent Bay, Shaw’s Cove, Wood’s Cove and Goff Island. “Stewardship requires care. The underlying principle is, ‘The more you know, the more you care,’ ” explains Rob Lee, Laguna Ocean Foundation’s managing director. “Visitors of all ages are welcome. … Those with a passion for marine science and protection, … [who are] 18 years old or above, can apply to be an educator … or docent.” Docent volunteers (unpaid) receive free, three-day training to introduce them to intertidal life and California’s Marine Protected Area system. Paid educators provide knowledge and resources at the tide pools year-round.
New in 2023, the Emerging Leaders program seeks to build a generation of science and conservation leaders, particularly students from underrepresented and underprivileged areas, through mentorship and financial support. “We realize that not all college students, particularly those that attend community colleges, have the access, resources or encouragement to pursue these professions. We hope to inspire them to follow their passion,” Lee says. “Once trained, the student will be part of a larger mentorship network.” Lee says the foundation wants all hands on deck and are looking for community volunteers to help with its education program: artists and photographers to help the organization provide better education material, people in the hospitality industry to better educate tourists about what to do and what not to do on local beaches, and athletes in the surf and skimboard communities to encourage their friends and families to protect the oceanic environment. “We’re always looking for support to have a greater impact—any financial contributions would be greatly appreciated,” Lee adds. To learn more about these programs, participate in them or make a donation, visit lagunaoceanfoundation.com.
Estuaries are rare ecosystems that provide valuable habitats for native fish and wildlife, filter pollution from water that is entering the ocean, and provide resilience to sea level rise and climate change. “In its present state, the [Aliso Creek] estuary is an unhealthy eyesore. We want to bring the lagoon back to Laguna,” Lee says. “We assembled a team of experts experienced in estuary restoration: scientists, restoration ecologists, site planners, engineers and environmental planners.” Lee says that the goal is to restore the degraded site to a healthy and functional ecosystem that will be a jewel of the Laguna coastline while also providing public amenities that enhance visitor mobility, creating a scenic gateway in south Laguna and proclaiming the community’s ethos of stewardship for the natural coast.