It's a little ironic that in Orange County, where you can be at the Pacific Ocean in a matter of minutes, many of us have had no closer encounter with marine life than pet-store aquariums or the prefab deep of Disneyland's submarine ride ("Captain! Off the port side! Could that be a . . . a sea serpent?"
This could be the summer to change that.
In Dana Point, the Orange County Marine Institute is offering programs to help bipeds of all ages get up-close and personal with their aquatic neighbors, whether they be microscopic plankton, glowing midshipmen (the fish, not the sailors), sea lions, dolphins or whales.
And in addition to the institute's usual day camps for children, the nonprofit facility recently premiered three cruise programs aboard the R/V Sea Explorer, its new 70-foot vessel outfitted with an underwater viewing theater that lets visitors see and converse with divers as they explore the ocean's floor.
On land, the institute debuts "A Beachcomber's Guide to the Marine Life Refuge," a 90-minute session in which visitors sort through natural "clues" that have washed ashore.
Also new this summer is a parent-child overnight program aboard the tall ship Pilgrim, a 130-foot replica of the square-rigger that carried Richard Henry Dana from Boston to the California coast in the 1830s, the journey related in Dana's book, "Two Years Before the Mast." (Leave the Dramamine at home; the Pilgrim will remain moored near the institute during the program.)
The institute has also beefed up its live theater offerings. Besides the annual staging of "Two Years Before the Mast," children's theater returns to the Pilgrim in an adaptation of the Norwegian folk tale "East of the Sun, West of the Moon."
Marine Institute summer sessions began July 1 and continue through late August. Dates, times and costs vary, and most programs are suitable for school kids and up. Here's the skinny of some of them:
ABOARD THE PILGRIM
Children's theater hasn't graced the deck of the Pilgrim for years, but a new collaboration with the Laguna Playhouse may mark its return on an ongoing basis. On Sunday, Laguna Playhouse's youth theater director, Joe Lauderdale, will stage a 50-minute adaptation of "East of the Sun, West of the Moon." Lauderdale and his six-adult cast toured the show to Anaheim schools last May and June.
Daniel Stetson, the Pilgrim's program director, said he is considering a number of options to expand the theater series, including commissioning a family piece specifically for production on board the ship.
For older children and adults, artist and writer Daniel Trent will present his "Two Years Before the Mast," a one-man, living-history piece based on Dana's book. Trent, who co-wrote the piece, has stepped into the director/producer role this summer and will bring in actor Jeffrey Paul Whitman to appear in the story's multiple parts. The show runs Aug. 6, 13 and 20. Tickets: $15 to $20.
And speaking of living history, parents and children age 8 and up can re-create some of Dana's experiences during an overnight program aboard the Pilgrim. Led by staff members in period costume, participants will learn sea chanteys, hoist barrels and tell time by the bells. Stetson says visitors will even row out to gather cowhides, a chore Dana and his shipmates performed often during the Pilgrim's hide-trading journey along the California coast. Fee: $90 per parent/child pair.
ON THE SEA EXPLORER
When the Florida-built Sea Explorer motored into Dana Point Harbor last spring, it greatly enhanced the number and variety of programs the institute could offer to the public.
One of the vessel's chief attributes is the ROV, or remote-operated vehicle that resembles a small submarine. The ROV is equipped with lights and a video camera through which visitors on board can--as the institute's associate director, Harry Helling, put it--"see what's going on under the boat without getting wet."
"In the past, we've had to bring (sea) animals out of their environment," Helling said. "Now we can observe them in their own habitat. It's like the difference of seeing a fish caught on a hook and flopping on the deck and watching it . . . dancing in the current in and out of the reefs."
Other Sea Explorer equipment includes a wet lab with video-microscopes that broadcast magnified images of sea life onto video monitors and improved nets that allow researchers to bring a wider variety of fish and sea life to on-board tanks.
During the Underwater Interactive Audio-Video Cruise, visitors in the ship's viewing salon chat with divers exploring kelp forests and rocky reefs within the Dana Point Marine Life Refuge. Fee: $16 to $22.
The 90-minute Harbor Eco-Tour introduces visitors to the cultural, biological and physical changes brought to the area by the construction of Dana Point Harbor, demonstrated through tools such as clips of "Creature From the Black Lagoon" (filmed in Dana Point before the jetty was built) to video-microscope viewings of delicate glass skeleton shrimp that dwell on the docks and pier pilings. Fee: $4 to $6.
Come nightfall, the institute offers a three-hour Marine Wildlife Dusk Cruise and a new Bioluminescence Night Cruise, a 2 1/2-hour encounter with some of the ocean's more glowing personalities, including the midshipman (a fish with 780 dots on its skin that emit a blue-green glow) and the sea pen (an invertebrate with tiny tentacles that send pulses of light up and down its body when touched.) Fee for each program: $16 to $22.
A Sea Adventure Camp for children 8 to 10 runs weekly through Aug. 26. Activities include tide-pool explorations, beach outings and research outings aboard the Sea Explorer. Fee: $149.
Ten- to 13-year-olds in the Traveling Sea Adventure Camp take part in a day trip to San Diego's Sea World park, Sea Explorer voyages, tide-pool explorations and (hang on to your body boards) three days of snorkeling and surf riding at the beach. Fee: $159.
Availability is limited for both series. Already sold out are the institute's popular Mommy and Me and the Sea preschoolers' program and the Junior Sea Camp.
What: Summer programs at the Orange County Marine Institute.
When: Ongoing through late August.
Where: Orange County Marine Institute, 24200 Dana Point Harbor Drive, Dana Point.
Whereabouts: From the San Diego (5) Freeway, take the Pacific Coast Highway exit and drive north. Turn left at Dana Point Harbor Drive.
Wherewithal: Fees range from $4 to $159.
Where to call: (714) 496-2274. Advance registration is suggested for all programs.