Twenty-seven years after killer whales off the Palos Verdes Peninsula ignited his lifelong passion for marine life, Manhattan Beach Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium Co-Director Eric Martin has been awarded the first Distinguished Educator Recognition Award in the Outstanding Non-Formal Education category by the American Meteorological Society.
“Killer whales were right off of Marineland—wild killer wales,” said Martin of the event on October 28, 1984, when he worked at the now defunct marine amusement park. “And I went out in somebody's boat, tracked them down, and was like—whoa--and I wanted to find out more and more what was out in the ocean.”
And so it began.
“I had two passions—the ocean and marine life, and the other passion was photography,” said Martin. “It was a lot easier for me to get into photography by working at 'one-hour photos' than getting into an actual aquarium, or something like that.”
He eventually started working for himself as the owner of a photo lab, after taking over someone else's. He installed tanks for marine life inside the business.
“We got permits from Fish and Game, and we did things ... like 'Sea Center Saturdays,' where we had touch tanks,” for families to come in and see and feel certain marine animals.
Eventually, digital photography killed his photo lab. He then went through a “hell job,” working at a graphics studio mounting pictures, and then worked at an aquarium.
Finally, 10 years ago, he became an aquarist at the Roundhouse.
“March 13th, 10 years ago from now, 2001, and this year's been wonderful because I celebrated my 10 years [as a paid employee at the aquarium], and now this fully unexpected award,” Martin said.
What did he think of the award he accepted before a crowd of 30 or so stuffed into the Roundhouse?
“I'm speechless. I really don't know what to say—I'm in awe. Normally when I'm in awe, I'm in awe from an animal. An animal encounter...whales saying hello to me on a boat, kayaking with a killer whale, I don't know—but this is the most in awe I've ever been from something I love to do.”
Roundhouse staff, however, know why he's won such a prestigious honor.
“He's a great teacher," said co-worker Valerie Hill. "Kids love him, and teachers love him—so, it was bound to happen one of these days. We just had to keep nominating him.”
“I think it's fabulous,” said wife Dawn Martin, who works at the aquarium. “There are days when kids just eat up his stories. He relates his own stories—what happens when he goes out on a boat, or when he went swimming with an octopus attached to his surfboard. He'll tell that, and there's not a sound [to be heard from his listeners]."
The man who presented the award on behalf of the American Meteorological Society wasn't surprised by Martin's win either.
“We had nominations all over the 50 states—it was a national competition...Eric is quite impressive, I could see why they [the AMS] chose him,” said geography professor Steve LaDochy of California State University, Los Angeles. “He not only brings schoolkids into the aquarium, but he takes specimens out into schools. That's a lot of running around. That's a lot of work.”
“I'm a total goofball—really, I am like the kids, actually. I really am,” Martin said.
He said he has a special passion for the opportunity to teach kids with disabilities, behavioral problems or just plain rebellious attitudes—a chance, he said, that can make a difference to someone who is used to being put aside.
“Especially when it comes to special ed kids and autistic kids and stuff like that, they don't always get a part of it...[they] never get picked,” Martin said
“For them [the kids], it's [the kids] coming up and saying, 'Whoa, somebody really cares about me' instead of a teacher coming up and saying, 'Oh, he's bad, put him in the corner.'... I don't really like to say that, because some teachers will feel that way ... but give these guys a chance. Give them a chance. If you don't give them a chance, they'll end up as gang members or something like that.... And this is why organizations like Big Brother clubs ... or even my little three hours here giving that person a chance” make a difference.