<b>STAR STUDENT: </b> Scott Simon shows Madeline, 4, a sea star.
Matt Kettmann

Tucked between the sandy bluffs, tranquil lagoon, and waves of Campus Point, UCSB’s REEF is where more than 10,000 Santa Barbara schoolkids are introduced to the underwater world each year. Designed and developed 13 years ago by Scott Simon, who was hired in 2003 as outreach coordinator for the Marine Science Institute, REEF, or the Research Experience and Education Facility, teaches kids about the more than 200 types of organisms that live right off the coast, from swell sharks, moray eels, and octopus, to abalone, sea cucumbers, and limpets.

And it does so all through the lens of various studies underway on campus, where students and faculty analyze everything from the die-off of anchovy and abalone fisheries to ocean currents, acidification, climate change, and kelp forest ecology. “We connect the community with the research that is going on at UCSB,” said Simon, who believes that focus sets the REEF apart from the Sea Center on Stearns Wharf, where he once worked.  

Though younger students are the primary audience, all ages of the public can visit the facility each weekend, and UCSB undergrads also frequent the REEF, including writing, art, oceanography, and environmental studies classes. Throw in summer camps, and about 20,000 people a year touch these tanks, many, if not most, surprised to learn how much wonder hides just a few yards offshore. “A lot of people only see the ocean from the surface,” said Simon. “They don’t realize that the kelp forests and rocky reefs can be just as beautiful as a tropical sea.”

There is, however, a tropical tank, as well, reflecting UCSB’s ongoing projects on the coral reefs of Mo’orea. It houses, among other colorful species, the colorfully named humuhumunukunukuapua’a. Since it’s also called the Picasso triggerfish, one art teacher recently used it to explore cubism with her students, just one example of the REEF’s multidisciplinary reach. Another is that while most of the 30 undergrad volunteers that work for Simon each year are aquatic biology majors, some are from political science, psychology, and other fields. “A passion for the ocean and the environment is the minimum criteria,” he said.

Many of Simon’s past volunteers have gone on to work in aquariums and as teachers, including San Marcos High’s Kate Standerfer, who was chosen from a national search to board Robert Ballard’s E/V Nautilus expedition this past summer. The REEF also teaches teachers and is able to localize, for instance, the nationally developed 6th grade curriculum on ocean science. “Not only are we having the schools bring the kids here, but we’re bringing the ocean to their classrooms,” said Simon.

After more than a dozen years flying under the sonar, it’s about time that the greater Santa Barbara community knew more, which is why the REEF is hosting an OceanFest this Saturday. “This is one of the best-kept secrets,” said Simon, somewhat sheepishly, as if he still doesn’t want too many to know. “This is really for the locals.”


This Saturday, September 24, 10 a.m.-3 p.m., the REEF and UCSB Sustainability are hosting OceanFest, a free event that includes tours, tide pooling, face painting, surfing, kayaking, beach walks, live music, and more. See msi.ucsb.edu/reef.


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