Creating a Sea Change

by Evelyn Allen

A teenager looks up into the pitch-dark night sky and glimpses the nebulous glow of the Milky Way for the very first time. A middle-schooler faces his fears, leaping from a great height into the surrounding ocean waters. A young girl sees plastic debris encroaching on marine life and, in an instant, discovers her calling as an environmental scientist.

For Annie MacAulay ’11, founder of Mountain and Sea Adventures (MSA), there are no greater moments to witness than these, when young minds make lasting connections to the natural world. MacAulay’s nonprofit, headquartered on Catalina Island, has been working for 20 years to bring kids and teens out of their comfort zones and into the outdoors, where they can apply their growing knowledge of science, encounter nature up close, and face character-building challenges. More than 100,000 young people have gone through one of MSA’s overnight camps or field trip programs, which aim to develop “world-changing adventurers who love and steward the Earth.”

This mission stems from MacAulay’s deeply held conviction that caring for creation is central to living out her Christian faith. “In Genesis, God looked at all He had made and called every bit of it ‘very good,’” she said. “My generation is handing over an Earth that’s much more fragile than it was even 100 years ago. As believers, we can and should be the head, rather than the tail, of the environmental justice movement, responding directly to God’s call to be careful stewards of our earthly home.” With this monumental task at hand, MacAulay channels her energy into shaping the hearts and minds of the next generation of difference makers, providing them avenues “to be a little closer to God’s creation.”

Whether learning about marine biology at MSA Camp on Catalina’s Whites Landing, exploring astronomy and physics at Camp Oakes in the San Bernardino National Forest, or embarking on an aquatic adventure aboard MSA’s floating sea camp—the 112-foot-long marine research vessel called Enhydra—youth experience the wonders of nature and grapple with issues facing the planet today, from pollution to climate change. “We give kids the opportunity to consider these problems and then to become solution makers,” said MacAulay. “It’s powerful, because it gives them ownership, and they come up with all sorts of brilliant and creative ideas. These kids will grow up to answer the most pressing environmental problems of our day.”

When MacAulay set out to launch Mountain and Sea Adventures, which held its first sessions in 1998, she wanted to provide lessons that went beyond scientific discovery and outdoor recreation. MacAulay had previously studied marine biology at California State University, Long Beach, but had not graduated, and had worked for the Long Beach Marine Institute developing curriculum and education programs for the marine research hub. She saw room for improvement—specifically, material that would help youth cultivate the traits needed to succeed in science and as champions for the environment. “The Lord stirred in me a vision to create an organization that emphasizes character and spiritual application alongside science education,” she said. As she worked to get MSA off the ground, MacAulay completed her bachelor’s degree in Christian leadership at Azusa Pacific, where her professional goals became the living foundation for her capstone project. “Annie is a success story like none other—one who models integrity and commitment, as well as a deep and faithful obedience to where the Lord is leading her,” said Richard Durfield, Ph.D., associate professor at APU’s University College, who mentored MacAulay on leadership decisions both spiritual and logistic during her time at APU and beyond. “She brought a very big idea from conception to reality, and I often marvel at her impact on so many young lives.”

Thirty percent of MSA participants come from faith-based schools, while the majority are students from public schools throughout Southern California. Every lesson plan they experience—during kayaking, snorkeling, zip-lining, observing the natural world, and more—has a spiritual element embedded, though only private schools hear an explicitly Christian message. “Either way, we are telling the same story of finding courage, trust, love, strength, perseverance, and tenacity within themselves and using these gifts for good,” said MacAulay. “It’s very important to approach science through the lens of character, because it takes strength and courage to stand for what’s right.”

By the end of their time at camp, all students have experienced at least one moment that changes the way they see the world and their role in it. At MSA Camp, a ceremonial fire on the final night gives campers the chance to share personal, fear-breaking victories from their time at camp. Their words are often intensely meaningful and heartfelt. That’s when MacAulay opens up to the campers about her own breakthrough: “I had a fear that there was little hope for our world to change. But that was before I met you.”

For more information about Mountain and Sea Adventures, visit

Evelyn Allen is senior editor in the Office of University Relations.