“This announcement is great news. In so many ways, it strengthens our ability to serve our wildlife, our water quality, and our community; that’s our role – to serve the community through natural resource conservation,” said SCCF CEO Ryan Orgera, Ph.D. “Starting Jan. 1, the Sanibel Sea School will become SCCF’s education department.”
Founded in 1967 by members of the “Greatest Generation,” SCCF blends legendary success in advocacy and habitat preservation, with increasingly more attention on water quality through its Marine Laboratory. Sanibel Sea School has become an iconic brand for its focus on experiential education for Generation Z as well as lifelong learners of all ages. As a combined non-profit, they will better serve four generations – quite a feat for a Southwest Florida organization.
“Our plan is to develop more terrestrial education programs based on the Sea School’s unique approach to experiential learning,” said Orgera. “We have a lot of amazing scientists on our staff who are very dedicated to their research. Having a more effective way to share their work with the public is exciting.”
Located at the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River and adjacent to one of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, Sanibel and Captiva islands are experiencing real water challenges.
“Joining forces is what’s best for the future of our coastal ecosystems,” said Orgera. “The idea of combining with the Sea School started as a conversation of how to operate more efficiently and turned into a very practical and potent way to better fulfill our very complementary missions.”
That conversation flowed easily for Sanibel Sea School Executive Director Bruce Neill, Ph.D., who is a strong advocate of cooperation and partnership. “We can best support nature and serve our community with a single unified voice, broadcast across multiple wavelengths, to promote natural resource conservation,” he said.
After the two organizations become a single nonprofit, Neill will be SCCF’s Director of Education.
Following the intensity of the 2018 red tide and the simultaneous blue-green algal bloom, the time for attention to water quality has never been more apparent. The world-famous shores of Sanibel and Captiva and the surrounding watershed help drive Lee County’s $3 billion tourism economy and are coveted for their natural beauty.
“We believe that if people fall in love with the ocean, they will protect it,” says Neill.
Sanibel Sea School has welcomed people of all ages and walks of life to become part of an “Ocean Tribe.” “We make field-based learning fun and meaningful – from squid dissections and seine netting for seahorses to surfing and kayaking. Many people fear the ocean, so we help them experience it in a rich, safe and meaningful way that builds a lasting connection to nature.”
At SCCF, the timing was right with a new CEO at the helm since January 2019. Orgera, who grew up on Lemon Bay in Charlotte County, has a very dedicated and enthusiastic approach to conservation and can easily relate to the driving concept behind the Sea School.
“I recently ran into my kindergarten teacher and she remembered how much I loved sharks and was so glad that I had stuck to my path,” says Orgera, who brings an international perspective from his global policy work in fisheries with The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“We see a terrific benefit for operating more effectively through the blending of our infrastructure, board expertise and staff abilities,” he adds. The union will also result in more effective communication with the public on science-based conservation.
“Thanks to SCCF, reputable, respected marine science is taking place on our islands; we are excited to help translate that pertinent information in ways to help our citizens become better stewards of the environment, and to have a more meaningful and examined experience in this community,” said Neill.
SCCF has the longest-running sea turtle monitoring program in Florida. It is also known for its monitoring, research and protection of other wildlife species including shorebirds, indigo snakes, and freshwater turtles. As the largest private landholder on the islands, SCCF also manages more than 1,850 acres of wildlife habitat. Islanders are also encouraged to make private lands hospitable for protection for the many other critters through plant sales and education programs at SCCF’s Native Landscapes & Garden Center.
SCCF is currently renovating its Nature Center on Sanibel-Captiva Rd. into an education hub with an auditorium that will feature presentations and displays on SCCF’s widely varied programs. Both Neill and Orgera are very excited to have a partnership that blends the many facets of conservation under a single administrative roof.
“Ryan is very passionate and strategic. We have similar approaches to leadership. We respect and listen to our staff, and we value them greatly,” said Neill. “I feel good about growing the Sea School’s special style of marine science education under the SCCF umbrella. We believe this is the most sustainable future for Sanibel Sea School, and one that will ensure that our programs continue for years to come.”
Coastal Watch, an island-based advocacy arm of the Sea School, will also become part of SCCF.
“Coastal Watch will help us take on a deeper role in promoting eco-friendly lifestyles,” said Orgera. “We want to help our residents and visitors find ways they can help serve the environment in a very local and meaningful way.”