Fifth Grade’s Sea Lion Environmental Project

Each year, the Mount Madonna School (MMS) fifth grade class engages in a year-long, cross-curricular study focused on an environmental topic selected by the students. For 2021-22, students voted to focus on sea lions to raise public awareness and reduce the existential threats faced by these marine mammals, including overfishing of their prey, plastic pollution, climate change and entanglement in abandoned fishing gear.

Steller sea lions are endangered and are protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammals Protection Act. Steller sea lions are found infrequently in the Monterey Bay area, so the students’ expanded the scope of their project to include California sea lions. The California sea population is stable, due in large part to the efforts of many marine mammal rescue centers.

To learn more about the animals that coexist with sea lions in their ocean habitat, students visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They also had a virtual field trip with staff at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach, where they learned about the process of sea lion rescue, rehabilitation and release. Through these experiences, the students came to understand more about the threats that sea lions face and actions that they can take to help reduce those threats.

“Sea lions are pinnipeds and they’re a huge part of our food web,” observed student Pierce Culbertson.

“They’re an indicator species,” said classmate River Brinton.

“This means that if sea lions are washing up on the beach, something is going with the health of the ocean,” added classmate Amelie Thams.

Fifth grader Willow Woodrow said that all of the significant threats to sea lions are related to human impacts.

“Entanglements in fishing gear, and overfishing of the main fish species that sea lions eat are big problems,” Woodrow said.” Most of the sea lions washing up on beaches are malnourished.”

“Climate change is a big part of the problem too,” said Brinton. “Fish are migrating to warmer or colder waters and so sea lions end up eating different types of fish that don’t have the same nutrition.”

As part of their project the students have opted to partner with the Pacific Marine Mammal Center and find ways to fundraise in order to “adopt” one of their rescued sea lions to help support its rehabilitation and release.

Recently, fifth graders began writing letters to state and federal representatives to ask for actions to help protect the sea lions. This includes requests  asking for actions like banning the use of wildlife, such as sea lions and other animals for entertainment at places like SeaWorld, allocating more funding for cleaning up plastic pollution, banning dangerous single-use items such as plastic bags and plastic straws, and stricter actions to reduce climate change such as amending the Clean Air Act.

Other student-suggested actions include banning nylon in fishing nets and rope, because entangled animals are unable to chew their way free, tracking fishing nets in the ocean and holding fishermen and companies responsible for their gear, and increased patrolling, including the use of drone technology on federal waters.

Students are also analyzing the waste produced at their own homes, and each student will ask their family to pledge to find one way to reduce the overall amount of waste the family produces, as a means to prevent it from entering the ocean and threatening sea lions.

Later this spring, fifth graders will work with the Save Our Shores organization to clean up a local beach and will be joined in this community service effort by their ninth grade and kindergarten buddies. As part of this collaboration Save Our Shores will present to fifth grade and kindergarten students about watersheds and how pollution travels in watersheds.

Lastly, fifth graders are busily involved in creating an original, educational movie that will be a parody of the movie “The Goonies” to teach people about threats to sea lions and how they can help. Proceeds from selling DVDs of their movie go towards helping to support their adopted sea lion.



Contact: Leigh Ann Clifton, director of marketing & communications,

Nestled among the redwoods on 375 acres, Mount Madonna School (MMS) is a diverse learning community dedicated to creative, intellectual, and ethical growth. MMS supports its students in becoming caring, self-aware, discerning and articulate individuals; and believe a fulfilling life includes personal accomplishments, meaningful relationships and service to society. The CAIS and WASC accredited program emphasizes academic excellence, creative self-expression and positive character development. Located on Summit Road between Gilroy and Watsonville. Founded in 1979.