Brief History of the Ocean Institute

The Ocean Institute, founded in 1977, is a community-based 501 (c ) 3 organization that offers in-depth Marine Science, Maritime History and Outdoor Education programs. The facility includes state-of-the-art teaching labs, the Maddie James Seaside Learning Center, two historic tallships, and an oceanographic research vessel.

Immersion-based field trips range from one-hour science labs to multi-day programs at sea. All programs are designed to maximize immersion, spark curiosity, and inspire a deep commitment to learning.

Ocean-based exhibits are open to the public seven days a week. The Ocean Institute also offers organized family programs, summer camps, cruises, tallship sails, and other unique events including our annual Tall Ships Festival and the Festival of Whales.  

Timeline of Events
1977: Orange County Marine Institute
In 1977 the Orange County Marine Institute was formed, as a public agency, by the County of Orange and the Community College Districts.
1980: Opening
The building was opened in May and the Pilgrim arrived on the same day. The facilities provided a platform for developing sustainable science and maritime programs for all ages, teacher education programs, and partnerships with regional marine partners.
1980: Stanley Cummings
Stanley Cummings was appointed President of the organization.
1980: Graysea “The Whale”
Graysea, the skeleton of a juvenile Gray Whale, arrived at the Marine Institute.
1981: First Summer Camp Program
The first camp program was offered to the public in the spring of 1981.
1984: First annual Toshiba Tall Ships Festival
The first Toshiba Tall Ships Festival was held in 1984.
1985: Brig Pilgrim
The purchase of the Brig Pilgrim was complete, allowing students to continue to experience programs that bring history to life, on this replica of the tall ship made famous by Richard Henry Dana in his book “Two Years Before the Mast.”
1988: The Sand Dollar Guild
In 1988, the Sand Dollars formed as an independent fundraising guild for the Institute.
1994: R/V Sea Explorer
The Research Vessel Sea Explorer, with state-of-the-art oceanography equipment was purchased, giving students the opportunity to become oceanographers for a day.
1995: Walter Cronkite Award
In 1995 the National Maritime Historical Society presented the institute with the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Maritime Education. “Ocean Institute programs have succeeded brilliantly in the most important mission: reaching and actively engaging the imagination of American youth.”
1996: Amistad
Amistad is a 1997 Steven Spielberg film based on a slave mutiny that took place aboard a ship of the same name in 1839, and the legal battle that followed. The Brig Pilgrim was featured as three different vessels in this film.
1996: ASTA Award
In 1996, the American Sail Training Association presented the institute with the Sea Education Program of the Year award.
1999: Ocean Institute
The organization’s name changed to Ocean Institute in 1999.
2001: Daniel Gee
Daniel Gee was appointed President of the organization.
2001: Adopt-A-Class
The Ocean Institute launches the Adopt-A-Class program for underserved students in 2001. The program is funded by corporate and foundation grants and individual donations to provide underserved students access to the Institute’s programs.
2001: Spirit of Dana Point
The Ocean Institute acquired its second Tall Ship in 2001. Formally known as the Pilgrim of Newport, the Spirit of Dana Point offers sailing programs for students and the public.
2002: Huell Howser
In 2002, Huell Howser featured the Ocean Institute in his travel show California Gold, episode 103
2002: New Facility Opened
The Ocean Institute opens its new state-of-the-art campus after a $16.5 million fundraising campaign.
2002: First annual Ocean Institute Jazz Festival
Originally called “Jazz in January,” this popular fundraising event features unique and unforgettable smooth jazz and epicurean delights.
2003: National Science Foundation Award – Sea Floor Science
In 2003, the Ocean Institute receives a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation for an exhibition that allows visitors to become involved in active research on ancient climates, underwater earthquakes, tsunamis, deep-sea archaeology and animal adaptations to extreme environments.
2003: First Annual Watershed Conference
In 2003, students participate in the Watershed Program’s Kids’ Conference. The students present their findings from their studies of the environmental impact of human behavior.
2005: Daniel Stetson
Daniel Stetson was appointed President of the organization.
2005: National Science Foundation Award – SeaTech
NSF awarded the Ocean Institute a grant to provide underserved students with experiences in oceanography and technology leading to college and career interest in STEM.
2005: Jumbo Squid Dissection
In 2005, Ocean Institute scientists dissected a jumbo squid (Dosidicus gigas), which washed up on the beach at Crystal Cove State Park, for the general public. The contents of the squid’s stomach were frozen and sent to Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University.
2005: First Annual Home Raffle
A new home and other prizes were offered in what would become California’s most successful home raffle. Proceeds from the raffle tickets support the Ocean Institutes programs.
2006: First Annual Girls in Ocean Science Conference
In 2006, the Ocean Institute presented its first annual Girls in Ocean Science Teen Conference. This one-day conference encourages female teens to explore college and careers in science. Prominent female ocean scientists from around the country interact with the girls in the laboratories and aboard the R/V Sea Explorer.
2007: Business of the Year Award
The Dana Point Chamber of Commerce selected the Ocean Institute as Dana Point’s 2007 “Business of the Year.” The Ocean Institute was the first non-profit to receive the award, which recognizes the positive contributions made to the Dana Point community.
2013: Maddie James Seaside Learning Center Opens
The Ocean Institute celebrates the grand opening of its spectacular “on the water” learning facility, honoring a young ocean steward, and featuring fascinating science and maritime learning stations and vessel moorings.
2015: Headlands & Beyond / Open to the Public
In May 2015, the Ocean Institute opens its Headlands and Beyond exhibit and opens to the public weekdays and weekends.

2015: Dori Moorehead – President
Dori Moorehead appointed President of the organization.

  2017: Celebrating 40 Years
In 2017, the Ocean Institute celebrates 40 Years of experiential education. 
2017: Dan Pingaro – President
Dan Pingaro appointed President of the organization.
2017: Ocean Institute Honored as Nonprofit of the Year

Senator Patricia Bates honored Orange County’s Ocean Institute as the 2017 Nonprofit of the Year for the 36th Senate District. “The Ocean Institute’s work is a fantastic example of nonprofits strengthening our communities, while inspiring everyone – especially children – to learn more about the marine environment,” said Bates.