Oceanographers estimate that only five percent of the world’s oceans have been explored, yet we know they’re home to 230,000 known animal species, from single cell plankton to ship-sized blue whales. Another two million species are thought to exist.
Plankton – those microscopic, free-floating, single-celled animals – produce the oxygen for “every other breath we take,” said Tom Pollack, CEO of ExplorOcean in Balboa Village, the nonprofit educational center that grew out of the renamed and re-purposed Newport Harbor Nautical Museum.
Pollack’s pelagic plankton point is part of the depth of oceanic info that young students gain stemming from the broad, hands-on learning experiences being offered at ExplorOcean.
Rather than the passive “don’t touch the exhibits!” type of museum, ExplorOcean is a “Please touch” learning facility focused on informing kids from Kindergarten through 12th grade (and adults, too) about the watery world that keeps our Earth alive.
ExplorOcean is achieving this through educational programs of awareness, respect, encouragement, participation, and direction, as well as via a STEM-based curriculum called the “Seven Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy.”
“What sets us apart from aquariums and science centers is that we offer a full curriculum of instruction from the STEM perspective, with the ocean as a backdrop,” Pollack explained.
ExplorOcean by name and design is a unique facility for youngsters to start a fun, hands-on, lab-and-field-based ocean exploration—a new literacy beyond their limited life experiences.
Many of these students, though living close in miles to Newport Beach, are economically disadvantaged and never have been to the ocean, or even inhaled the sea’s scent. The water world for them is both a foreign and exciting new environment.
One of the perpetual struggles of a nonprofit organization is to keep afloat in an economic environment that ebbs and flows like the tide.
With an annual operating budget of $1.6 million, Pollack must manage the overall operational viability of the institution.
“We’re at the fifty-fifty point now,” he said, “with half [of the income] coming from an investment portfolio, and the other half earned from commercial marina tenants and waterfront rides” on ExplorOcean-owned waterfront property in the Balboa Fun Zone.
“We’re one of the better funded nonprofits in terms of our business model structure,” Pollack claimed.
Still, ExplorOcean’s long-range plans include a complete facility rebuild that looks more space center than waterfront modern.
This requires tens of millions of dollars, most of which will be generated by fundraising campaigns that are currently in the advanced planning stages, plus anticipated funds from grants.
One such grant recently received was a $35,000 Whale Tail award by the California Coastal Commission for ExplorOcean’s after-school single- and multi-day camps that take kids on a variety of lab and field excursions to such places as the Back Bay estuary, Little Corona tide pools, and the USC lab on Catalina Island.
“We were the number one Coastal Commission-funded nonprofit dealing with the ocean in California,” Pollack said.
ExplorOcean has also partnered with four children-focused nonprofits to provide free indoor and outdoor programs to their clientele. They include Orangewood, KidWorks, Olive Crest and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).
ExplorOcean gave several thousand unfortunate children access to the ocean last year,
“We have the capacity to handle hundreds of kids at a time,” Pollack said. In fact, ExplorOcean is a fieldtrip destination for many private and public schools, and homeschooled families, at a cost of only $5 per student.
One Huntington Beach high school teacher, whose school budget could not cover transportation costs, brought his students via public transportation.
Whereas the current facility draws approximately 40,000 visitors annually, an analysis conducted by AECOM, an S&P 500 economic consulting company, projected that ExplorOcean would prove to be a major cultural magnet that would attract more than 350,000 people annually from the more than two million sauntering along the Fun Zone boardwalk, and garner at least 70 percent earned revenue from ticket sales, waterfront activities and boardwalk attractions.
It also will be a central catalyst for the city’s revitalization goals for the Balboa Village.
As an executive in the institutional bond business for nearly 30 years, and as a member of the U. S. Olympic Sailing Team in the 1980s, Pollack has successfully navigated both the water and financial worlds. He’s confident that with his expert crew of educators, he’ll skipper ExplorOcean into one of this country’s great nautical institutes.
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