SSI x Edges of Earth: The Catalina Island Sea Camp Transforming Children’s Lives

As divers, we want to protect the oceans we love but it can feel overwhelming when we are surrounded by negative news and media. In this latest Edges of Earth expedition update, the team shares the awe-inspiring ocean education work being done at Catalina Island in the USA. If you are looking for confirmation that you make a difference, and that it is not too late to protect our oceans, this is the story for you. Read on to find out more.

Finding hope for the future at Catalina Island

Growing up in the tri-state area in the nineties, northeasterners like me found our slice of summer on the coastlines of New Jersey and New York. These were our go-to spots for family vacations, where we would stake out a patch of sand among the throngs of beachgoers. Occasionally, we ventured further to the beaches of Maryland and North Carolina, where the crowds thinned but the allure remained strong.

That access and exposure to the ocean’s wonders were precious—our cherished connection to a world of sandy toes and salty air. Not to mention, this was also the final days before the internet took over—so unlimited information through some quick searching was not an option back then.

Today, the access to information kids have is exponentially greater than what millennials experienced growing up. The scope of what young people know and can explore surpasses the limited views of previous generations. Thanks to technological advances, the rising generations can experience worlds beyond their immediate surroundings right from their fingertips. Educational opportunities have also evolved significantly; curriculums are more developed, learning styles more sophisticated, and there are more opportunities for everyone to engage deeply with subjects they are passionate about.

These opportunities certainly apply to ocean education. While making this type of learning universally accessible remains a challenge, dedicated teams across the country are committed to expanding these opportunities. Notably, one such team on the West Coast had captured the attention of our expedition team, prompting us to explore their impactful work firsthand.

California has always been known as an "ocean" state. With 840 miles of incredible coastline, there are 420 public beaches that its residents and visitors alike have access to. Not to mention, it is said that there are 527 marked islands in the California area, with some being way more notable than others. 

One island has always stood out as home to some of the best scuba diving in California: Catalina Island. It is here that an immersive ocean education experience can be found

The Catalina Island Marine Institute (CIMI), established by the nonprofit Guided Discoveries, Inc., has been an outdoor science school since its inception in 1979, offering children a hands-on experience with the ocean. Since its start, CIMI has committed to positively impacting children by introducing them to new opportunities and educating them through interactive marine science labs focusing on fish, invertebrates, algae, and plankton. 

By 1980, Catalina Sea Camp was launched, providing summer programs that immersed students in ocean sciences and exploration for weeks. In the nineties, CIMI expanded, opening two more locations at Cherry Cove and Fox Landing, with the latter still operational today.

Discovering this ignited a sense of wonder and a twinge of envy in me—could this have been available during my school years in the 90s? As an ocean enthusiast with limited opportunities to explore marine life beyond aquarium visits and rare family trips to the beach, CIMI would have been a dream.

READ MORE: Discover The New SSI Marine Invertebrate Ecology Program

To make up for lost time though, our expedition team was off to Catalina Island, and in a nostalgic twist, I brought my parents along with us. It felt like stepping back in time, reliving the childhood excitement of being dropped off at the summer camp.

Upon arriving at Catalina Island after a 1.5-hour ferry ride from the mainland and a short boat trip to the campsite, we were warmly welcomed by CIMI’s key figures: Jeff Chace, the charismatic long-time director, and Ashley ’Peach’ Bueche, his right hand and the dive director. The reception was one of the warmest we’d experienced on our expedition. 

It was so inspiring. There were hundreds of enthusiastic kids and young staff, all embarking on journeys in ocean conservation, science, and education. 

CIMI’s vibe is not something that can be replicated anywhere else. Music was playing from speakers mounted all across the facility’s grounds. There was a dive deck facing the ocean and offering some breathtaking views, and students were running to and from, eager to learn and get their first experiences in the water. 

This place had been thoughtfully and strategically designed top-to-bottom by the masterminds who have been running CIMI for over two decades. Jeff, with characteristic humility, took no credit for how much amazing work has happened at CIMI. Instead, he said it is because of the vibrant community leaders, like Peach, that have come through the camp over his 25-year tenure.

Upon arrival, Peach expertly navigated us through CIMI’s underwater classrooms—a novel experience for the participating children. Younger kids are introduced to swimming and snorkeling, while those 12+ can try scuba diving.

The diving experiences are seamless for every one of the nearly 1 million children expected to participate by 2024.

The operation runs smoothly, with an engaged and eager group of participants. Similarly to Jeff, Peach said the success here is due to the team of 20 divers she manages. She pointed out that every one of them has the unique ability to maintain a perfect balance of professionalism and playful goofiness, keeping the atmosphere light, yet focused.

Everyone Jeff and Peach hire has some sort of "weird" about them that the kids love. Whether it is donning costumes for a dive or embracing a spirit of playfulness, the staff’s unique quirks make them a hit among the young attendees. 

This is vital work - around 10-20% of these California children have never before interacted with the ocean, despite their proximity to its vast coastline. 

By crafting an environment where the ocean is fun and approachable, Jeff, Peach, and their team effectively dispel any initial fears, helping the children to feel at ease and excited about marine exploration.

GET INSPIRED: Ocean Heroes: Coral Restoration and Hope for Our Reefs

Peach passionately describes the transformative power of trying something new: "When you try something you have never attempted before and then accomplish it, how could that not translate to confidence in yourself?" At CIMI, this experience extends beyond local Californian students to include youngsters from more land-locked states like Utah and Texas, making their achievements in the water even more significant. 

We learned that this empowering approach is not limited to children; adults can benefit too. My father, who started diving at 65, joined us, and I witnessed him diving comfortably at nearly 70, showcasing that CIMI’s educational methods resonate across all ages. 

By emphasizing fun and easing fears, the CIMI team effectively boosts confidence and engagement, with up to 35,000 children benefiting from this approach each year.

While keen on expanding scientific programs through what they call "labs", CIMI maintains a primary focus on child-centered learning. Each step of the learning process, from snorkeling to advancing dive training, is a custom-tailored journey that respects each student’s pace and potential.

Walking through each lab experience, we found ourselves hooked like the kids, transfixed on what was taught in these awesome facilities. From learning about the insides of a whale to uncovering how sharks mate to even dissecting squids, the on-land elements were arguably just as fascinating as the underwater ones. They were making the contents of most ocean textbooks come to life.

The programs engage children in scientific topics that extend beyond traditional classroom subjects, focusing particularly on climate change through tangible, local examples. 

Observing the stark contrast between thriving and depleted kelp forests during a short stay on an island vividly illustrates these environmental impacts. This freedom in educational content allows for discussions on significant, real-world issues, often overlooked in conventional school settings.

It provides a deep dive into the current state of our planet and the potential roles each student can play in restoration, conservation, and science. Jeff describes this method as the "punch and run" approach: quickly introducing complex subjects for students to process at their own pace and in their own way.

RELATED: SSI x Edges of Earth: On the Front Line – Cambodia’s Coastal Crusaders

Yet for Jeff, he kept coming back to the key to their success: the people. While sitting in the rustic boat house overlooking the ocean above CIMI’s dive deck, he shared, "Even with modest facilities, the right team can achieve greatness. I always advise our new staff not to fear the chill of the temperate waters and to embrace every opportunity. This readiness to engage fully mirrors the open-minded enthusiasm we encourage in the kids."

This philosophy fosters intense, quick-forming bonds among the staff, making their years at CIMI feel as packed and significant as "dog years." Even long after leaving, former staff members maintain these deep connections, often forming lifelong friendships that extend far beyond their tenure.

Jeff explained that CIMI gets handwritten letters from former campers now going to graduate school for ocean sciences or conservation.

These letters describe how their camp experiences reshaped their worldview and influenced their career paths. Many kids return annually, aspiring to join the camp staff when they are old enough. This journey instills in them invaluable life lessons about navigating our technology-saturated world, emphasizing personal connections and the natural environment over digital distractions. 

The camp’s policy of no phones for kids while onsite (and for staffers no phones at dinner or in front of kids) and the engaging outdoor activities help staff and campers alike rediscover their love for nature—and for each other—every day.

This deep, communal bond is why Jeff has attended countless reunions, meetups, and dive experiences around the world with campers, staff, and their families. Not only that, but he is even the godfather to five children of former staff members! 

Catalina Island, with its unique remoteness, offers a transformative experience that Jeff believes more people should have the chance to discover.

The CIMI experience boils down to a simple philosophy Jeff described succinctly: "We love the outdoors, we love kids, and we love having fun." Amid the heavily present doom and gloom discourse on ocean conservation and science prevalent in our news feeds and media, CIMI offers a refreshing narrative of hope and enjoyment. 

They transform the conversation about the ocean into something exciting and uplifting, instilling a sense of optimism in the next generation. Something that, unfortunately, is not easy to come by on the mainland, especially when kids are glued to their devices. CIMI offers an alternative, at least for a little while, that can open children’s eyes to new ways of thinking and being. 

Leaving CIMI, I felt immensely grateful for the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream alongside my family. The "punch and run" experience lived up to its promise, leaving us eager for more and inspired to inject even more fun into our interactions with the marine environment.

This approach not only revitalized my passion for the sea but also emphasized the joy that can be found in ocean conservation. This was a much-needed reminder as we traverse the edges of Earth in search of positive progress when it comes to our blue planet. We are happy to say we certainly found it on the shores of Catalina Island

Feeling inspired to learn more about ocean conservation? Then check out SSI’s Blue Oceans program and Ecology Specialty courses.

You will learn all about the oceans, how to interact with marine life such as manta rays and sharks, and make a difference that lasts.


Andi Cross is an SSI Ambassador and lead of the Edges of Earth expedition, highlighting stories of positive ocean progress and how to explore the world more consciously. To keep up with the expedition, follow the team on InstagramLinkedInTikTokYouTube, and their website