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Student and staff leaders of the Cabrillo High School Aquarium formally kicked off a fundraising campaign Wednesday night for what could be the largest undertaking at the facility since its initial groundbreaking in 1999.

About 50 people converged on the Cabrillo High campus for the invitation-only gathering, at which Aquarium Director Greg Eisen and head student curators Kailey McNamee and Chase Fichtner announced a $250,000 capital campaign to fund a new interactive tide pool exhibit, as well as upgrade the aquarium’s filtration systems.

Among those in attendance for the event were several Lompoc Unified School District administrators and board members; Santa Barbara County Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, whose district includes Vandenberg Village; Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam, whose district includes Lompoc; Col. Michael Hough, who is commander of the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base; and several Lompoc-area business leaders.

During an opening presentation in the Cabrillo library that was held ahead of tours inside the aquarium, Fichtner noted that the aquarium had grown tremendously over the past two decades. It has gone from one class period in 2001 to six currently, he said, and it has hosted more than 7,000 visitors over the past year.

“This growth is fantastic for the program, but as we’ve been growing we started noticing some problems,” Fichtner said.

One of the main problems, he noted, was with the aquarium’s 17-year-old touch tank, which is showing signs of degradation. For perspective, Fichtner noted that the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which he acknowledged draws more visitors than the Cabrillo Aquarium, replaces its tanks every six years.

“(We’re) definitely due for an upgrade,” he said. “Along with that, our central filtration systems are maxed out, so we want to expand, renovate, update. Any of our tanks that are on that system, we have to upgrade those. So with these two problems combined, the Interactive Tide Pool Project was born.”

Following the presentation in the library, Eisen noted that the students and staff at the aquarium had been looking at ways to replace and upgrade the tide pool and filtration system over the past year. He said the timeline for completing the project will primarily depend upon the group’s ability to fund-raise, but he noted the leaders of the aquarium would also “actively” pursue grants.

“I think that people see the value of what we’re doing,” he said. “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money … but with the aquarium, we’ve never allowed money to be the issue. If we had, this wouldn’t be here.

“We know that, in terms of what this program does for the students, it’s worth it,” Eisen added. “And I think people recognize the value of this program.”

Most of the speakers at the opening presentation, which also included comments from first-year Cabrillo Principal Isidro Carrasco, stressed the benefits the aquarium program offers to students. In addition to the learning environment the facility affords the high school students, elementary students from LUSD campuses also tour the aquarium each year on field trips.

Eisen noted that the aquarium curriculum helps prepare the high school student curators for a wide range of fields and said that the facility has produced several “success stories” over the years.

McNamee, a senior, shared her own personal story of how the aquarium and its advisers have positively impacted her life. She said that a year ago she lost her father to cancer and “wanted to give up everything.”

“It completely tore me apart,” she said of her father’s death. “The thing that was most hard for me was going to school every day like nothing had happened. This program is the reason why I continue to persevere on. I thank not just the program itself for changing my life forever, but for every single one of these advisers.”

Eisen, who wiped his eyes as he admitted to being caught off-guard by McNamee’s comments, concluded the presentation by ensuring the attendees that the aquarium has been a good steward with donations it has received in the past and he said that will continue going forward.

Each of the attendees at the meeting was provided a sheet with sponsorship levels that ranged from $500 to $25,000-plus.

Donations are tax-deductable, according to aquarium officials, and can be mailed to: Cabrillo High School Aquarium, 4350 Constellation Road, Lompoc, CA 93436.

For more information on the campaign, contact Eisen at eisen.greg@lusd.org or at 805-742-2888.

“Some of the things that we’re doing, other universities and public aquariums have not been able to do,” Eisen told the attendees at the kickoff event. “Not to pat ourselves on the back too much — some of it is fortuitous, but it is also an indication of the pride and commitment of our students and staff.”

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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