Phil Zerofski has two of the greatest jobs in the world.
Phil and his wife Amy own SEACAMP San Diego, a program that hosts students from all over the world at their facility on Mission Bay. Putting their hearts and souls into the program, they have built it into one of the country’s preeminent education centers for teaching hands-on marine science to elementary through high school students.
But even with SEACAMP’s success, Phil couldn’t pass up on a new opportunity: Marine collector at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of UC San Diego.
“It was my dream job,” Phil told me when I asked about his reaction to learning that the position was available. “But I would have been just as happy to stay at camp because I love it there, too.”
This past summer I huddled around a window at Scripps with a group of undergrads. Out on the ocean we saw whale spouts and “oohed” and “aahed” with each one. Phil happened to pass by and we pointed them out to him.
“I was just out collecting kelp with (a masters student) and we passed them in the boat on our way back,” he said, taking a moment to talk with the students. “They’re blues. Mothers and calves.”
The students’ mouths dropped, and their reactions reminded Phil of a time he passed blue whales surface feeding off the San Diego coast with a boat full of SEACAMP campers.
As marine collector, Phil is asked to collect everything from tiny plankton to sharks for science and teaching at SIO. He also oversees the experimental aquarium facility, where he helps grad students and faculty design and implement experiments that teach us more about the critters that live in our watery backyard. Phil sees many parallels with SEACAMP San Diego, where students learn about the ocean by interacting with animals in labs and observing them in the wild via snorkel or boat.
Phil’s own love for the ocean dates back to when, at age four, his mom gave him a book about being an ichthyologist (a.k.a. a fish scientist); after that he proudly proclaimed it as his future job to anyone who would listen.
In middle school, Phil took on a marine science internship at the Woods Hole Aquarium and in high school Phil earned his SCUBA diving certification. When it came time to attend college Phil chose Roger Williams in Rhode Island because they offered a degree in marine biology. He put himself through school thanks in part to working construction, where he learned the wide array of techniques that he put to use years later at SEACAMP and Scripps.
Phil’s love of the ocean took him to the Florida Keys, where he landed a job as a handyman at a marine science camp for kids. He spent the first summer living in a tent, battling mosquitoes and working as hard as he could at his new job.
His perseverance and array of skills led to a promotion to harbormaster for the camp. In his new position he began learning from the more experienced boatmen at the local marina who taught him how to build boats from scratch.
While the camp’s facility managers loved Phil’s construction abilities, the camp’s teachers quickly learned that he was a vast source of information about marine life, turning to him when they were stumped by students’ questions. Before long Phil started teaching at the camp and leading students on dives.
After meeting in the Keys, Phil and Amy moved to San Diego where, fourteen years ago, they purchased SEACAMP San Diego. With total control to provide a hands-on marine science education, the blending of Phil’s expertise and passions—the ocean and building things—was complete. The camp now welcomes over four thousand students a year, coming from all fifty states as well as dozens of countries.
Today Phil has more on his plate than ever—especially with his three-year-old daughter Delilah—but he says it’s easy to get up in the morning.
When I arrive at Scripps for work around 9 a.m., I often see Phil, already hours into his day, suited up to dive, fixing a plumbing leak, or transporting animals. He’s usually smiling, and I can only imagine that each day is a new adventure, each new task an exciting problem to solve