Interview: Steve Hammack Delves into the History of the Catalina Trip

By Maddie Dewhirst

News Editor

Steve Hammack was the teacher at Los Gatos High School who began the annual trip to Catalina. He taught as Los Gatos for 35 years, and still guest lectures in AP Biology.

How long have you been doing the Catalina trip for?

I actually went on this trip the very first year I taught, which was 1980. I taught at a little private school in Los Angeles and I taught there for two years. And we came out [to Catalina] the second year it was open, which is because it opened in 1979. We came for a week, it was like an environmental education program and we did the same thing the second year. And I didn’t bring Los Gatos students until 1989 because that’s when I started teaching AP Biology. I didn’t begin teaching AP Bio the first year I taught, I was teaching other subjects, but then from 1989 onwards I came [to Catalina].

Why did you want to do the trip initially? What gave you the idea?

Well, obviously I found out about the trip because I was teaching at the private school in Los Angeles. So that’s how I became aware that there was a place called Catalina Island Marine Institute and that it was fantastic. So after coming here once I’m like, I want to keep bringing students back here forever because it’s so fantastic, because I love it so much. And that’s kind of what inspired me. It’s just basically the inspiration that all of you kids, all the inspiration that all students feel after spending three days, that’s exactly how I felt as a teacher, and I wanted to be able to share that with all my future students, so that’s why I brought kids here. And when Mrs. DeLaPaz started the [AP Environmental Science] class, she asked if she could come with the AP Bio students. I said “Of course! The more the merrier.”

Why do you think it’s important for students to have a type of learning experience outside of just a classroom setting?

Well I think it’s more real, right? This is real life. You can watch a blue planet special, you can read about this stuff in a book, but there’s nothing, nothing like being out in nature, snorkeling at night, see bioluminescence, go swimming through the kelp, seeing all those fish, doing all the different labs, there’s nothing like that. It’s very special and unique. And… I think it’s a deeper way of learning, and it’s also way more memorable and impactful. So when you’re my age, you will remember this trip. You may forget almost everything else you did in high school, but I guarantee you when you’re [my age], I just turned 64 this weekend, you will remember the Catalina trip, you will not forget it. You’ll remember the bioluminescence.

Do you have any favorite activities to do on Catalina?

Well… obviously, the snorkeling is my favorite. Because I love being out in the water and being able to see things in nature. I just love watching the fish… like [you can] just go through really quickly, but if you just sit there and watch fish, it is really interesting. Like the garibaldi are very territorial, so if you sit there watching for five or ten minutes, you see that they’re protecting their little territory, and they’re chasing other fishes away. And that’s really interesting. They have this sense that this is my space, and no one else is going to come in. Of course, bioluminescence is singularly so unique, so getting to go night dive is incredible, so I really like the snorkeling …I traveled all over the world and have snorkeled many, many places around the world and really enjoyed it. So learning how to snorkel here I hope will also inspire a lot of the students to take trips all over the world and go to different places and see the sea life. 

Is there one thing you wish students who come to Catalina would take away? Anything in particular or just a general idea?

So here’s my philosophy, I feel that there’s two things going on. There’s an academic, intellectual piece, which is learning about what plankton are and the different kinds of plankton and different kinds of fish, and the difference between rays and sharks, and all that, all the intellectual stuff. So that’s one piece that’s going on here during these two days. The other piece is an emotional piece and I think that’s the most important piece. My goal is by bringing students here is that you will fall in love with nature, that you will become more deeply connected emotionally with the ocean. And that therefore when you leave this island, you will be a different person. And you will have this emotional attachment and this love for nature and the ocean, and therefore you will become a caretaker of this ecosystem in the future. And that’s what we’re making, you know, we brought 150 kids and now we have 150 kids who for the rest of their lives will have this deep appreciation and love for the ocean and hopefully respect it and help change the laws in our country to be more environmentally aware and impactful. It will just make this world a better place. People fall in love with nature and then they have this connection and you don’t know what the ripple effects will be, they’ll go out in all directions and you have a huge impact.

I really enjoyed the story you told the other day… about trying to do something small [to help achieve a larger goal] and I was hoping you could expand upon that a bit more. 

Well I think if you have a love for the earth, for nature, for our environment, then you are going to seek ways, and your own unique way, to help preserve it and make it sustainable for future generations, and everyone’s story will be different. My story was the story of making a methane digester, that was the thing I was talking about yesterday, but then that was just a little project in high school, or in college. But then when I became a teacher, I found okay, how do I carry that love for nature, love for the environment, how do I carry that on my teaching, and make it impactful? And I know that just showing a blue planet special isn’t going to do that, so getting the kids out into nature is going to have a way greater impact, and so I just hope that everybody… can each find their own special way they can have an impact in a positive way for the environment. And Mrs. DeLaPaz does it in her [class]. In the APES class there’s something that Mrs. DeLaPaz does, it’s called bio site, and what she does is the kids go down to the creek and they learn all about stream ecology, and then in the spring she brings fourth graders to Los Gatos High and her students teach stream ecology to the fourth graders. And that program was started by one of my ex AP Bio students. So we stayed friends after she graduated, she worked at the Children’s Discovery Museum in downtown San Jose. I knew she was doing this project with other schools and so as soon as I as department chair helped start the AP Environmental Science course,… I told her the very first year I said, “if you can do this bio site program, I think it’ll really be special.” And to her credit, the very first year she taught AP Environmental Science she did this, which was, I mean, you can’t even imagine how much work it requires. She had to learn all this stuff about stream ecology, then she had to organize all the fourth graders to come over. I mean, it was like, amazing, but think about that. Think about the impact that our high school kids are having on fourth graders. So when they get to Los Gatos High School, now they want to be in AP Environmental Science because they remember the experience they had. So you just start a little spark and it can really grow into something much bigger than you ever imagined… I think the emotional connection really helps. So if people have a love for the environment, a love for nature then anything is possible really. 

Is there anything else you want to say?

I don’t think students fully understand how much work it takes to make this happen. And the amount of work that Mrs. DeLaPaz has put in, because I did it for so many years and then I did it with her. Now she’s doing it with Mrs. Messenger and Mrs. Bryan, the amount of work that she in particular, but the other two teachers [as well] is beyond, like, we don’t get any pay, she gets no extra pay for this. This is all completely because she loves the environment and she wants to share it with you guys. So I’ll say all three of them, but she does the lion’s share of the work, and I think people need to really go up to her, take a moment during tutorial or before or after school say thank you so much for all the work you put it, because you have no idea how much work it requires to make this trip. Because you probably experienced it being smooth, everything works, and you have two airplanes, 150 kids. I mean, it’s like planes, trains, automobiles and we lost three pieces of luggage. I mean, all this stuff, you can imagine the stress that she has. So it would be nice if more people recognize that and just had a personal thank you to her because I think it’s really special what she’s doing. I think we’re really very fortunate that we have Catalina Island here in California and it’s such a beautiful ecosystem. So from even hiking on the island you get the whole island ecology. And so I mean, it’s just like, “Oh my gosh, this is biology on steroids.” It’s so cool that we have this. And that we have the Catalina Island Marine Institute… and the cool thing about that Institute is that since I’ve been going since second year, every year, they do something new. They put money back in. So you pay a lot of money to go on this trip, but the money that you pay, they always add something new. So I’ve watched every year, it gets better and better. Oh, that lab gets better, oh this is really cool, oh that’s really cool. It’s amazing. They building it and they’re making it a better program every year so that’s really cool.

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