By Kate Cagle

As dolphins swam toward the small boat, the group of rowdy teenagers let out whoops and howls. The dolphins, drawn to the vibrations of the motor, swam closer and closer. For their peers, this might be deemed a once and a lifetime experience, but these young men will now venture out on the ocean every month.

The three teenagers, Tariq Morrow, Brian Parker and Avery Emerson are part of a new mentorship program with New Earth in Culver City. As they work their way through the criminal justice system, the program gives them a chance to get high school diplomas, make art and experience nature like this trip to Point Vicente and Abalone Cove off the coast of Palos Verdes.

Avery’s mentor and principal, Tony Zepeda, chaperoned the voyage. Every month they will be coming out onto to the water to learn about environmental efforts to restore natural habitats and marine life in the waters near Santa Monica.

The outing is part of a partnership between New Earth and L.A. Waterkeeper to get teens out of the city and onto the ocean. It’s a new tact for a four-year-old program run by Michael Quill, the community programs manager at the non-profit.

Quill says the ocean can be overwhelming to people who have spent time in a cell. He remembers one student in particular who boarded his boat after serving time behind bars.

“He had an overwhelming emotional reaction to being out in open space,” Quill said. “Now he’s in Sacramento drumming the beat for environmental activism.

“I think the fact that we’re bringing kids who otherwise wouldn’t have this kind of exposure out on the water makes it really phenomenal,” L.A. Waterkeeper’s executive director Bruce Reznik said.

While L.A. Waterkeeper’s boat is small: only allowing four of five teens to go out at a time, Quill’s frequent trips have made an impact. Every year, about 300 teenagers take the trip. The environmental watchdog partners with Santa Monica High School, Sherman Indian High School in Riverside and the L.A. Art Institute as well as New Earth.

While the trips can mean a lot to teens, they also serve an important function for L.A. Waterkeeper: monitoring nearby Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. The designated underwater parks play an important role in restoring ocean life threatened by overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction.

While on the boat, students look for fisherman inside and nearby the MPAs and document anyone violating local fishing limits. L.A. Waterkeeper catalogues violations and reports them to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“If we do see fishing in a no fishing zone, if they seem approachable we’ll go up and educate them,” Reznik said.

Instead of teaching different teens every week, this new partnership with New Earth’s mentor program will focus on the same group of 14 students who rotate on the voyage. Next month, a few of the teens on Friday’s trip will teach first-timers what they learned. The goal is to allow the students to eventually feel at home on the boat.

“It changes young people’s perspective,” Zepeda said on the dock after Friday’s trip. “They see the impact of what they do in their neighborhood and how it makes it into ocean.”

The teenagers nodded along as Zepeda described the change he’s already seen in them.

“I don’t want to litter no more,” 19-year-old Tariq added.