Ocean Center Offers Students Lessons on Ecosystem

Environmentalists have fought for years to protect what lies in the ocean just beyond the sands of Santa Monica Bay from the damage wrought by runoff from Los Angeles County's storm drains.

At the new UCLA Ocean Discovery Center, formerly an empty storefront under the Santa Monica Pier, visitors can see that, despite the pollution, beautiful things have survived.

In a touch tank, visitors learn that a sea cucumber is a squishy, golden brown animal that uses suction-cup feet to crawl across the ocean floor. Nearby, visitors can watch a horn shark and a lobster hang out in a 3,000-gallon tank.

The center "is going to show people that there are things out there in the bay that are worth saving," said Kate Muir, the center's education coordinator, who formerly worked at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Designed as a 4,000-square-foot classroom, the center's four oversized aquariums, touch tanks, displays and computer laboratory will offer one-hour lessons in marine environment to students from kindergarten to 12th grade. Most of the animals in the displays were caught in the bay, some just off the Santa Monica Pier.

Administrators hope to host 20,000 students this year from the Los Angeles and Santa Monica-Malibu school districts. Already, sessions are booked for the next four months, Muir said.

Beyond basic marine science, the center's staff emphasizes teaching students what the proximity of urban life means to the ocean's health. One display shows storm drains that lead from a neighborhood into a fish-filled ocean.

"It gives people the impetus to think . . . 'If I drop this oil in the gutter it might go down to the bay,' " said Chuck Kopczak, the center's director.

The concept for the center grew out of the university's teacher enhancement program that brings instructors to campus for a six-week course in marine science. Teachers who have completed the course often call the school to ask if they can bring their students to see the marine laboratories.

"There is a far greater demand for these kinds of hands-on opportunities for kids than there are places to do it," Kopczak said.

The center was financed with an $800,000 loan from the university, which administrators are hoping to repay with the help of sponsors and donations. Money also will be raised through admission fees to the public on the weekends.

The center has even taught Kopcak, who holds a doctorate in marine biology, a few surprising things about the bay. During dives to recover specimens, Kopcak discovered that despite the damaging effects of runoff from storm drains, ocean life appears to be replenishing itself.

"The rocks are absolutely covered with things," Kopcak said. "There is an abundance of animals."

The center, at 1600 Ocean Front Walk, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens, $1 for students and free for children under 4.

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