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San Clemente Journal

Skipper Mike Bursk Fair Winds, Full Sails

May 22, 2018 01:07PM ● By Donia Moore

Mike Bursk at the helm of the RV Sea Explorer.

by Donia Moore

An air of quiet dignity surrounds Mike Bursk as he stares out over the ocean. There is no doubt in his thoughtful blue eyes that the career he chose back in college was the right path for him. Mike is the licensed skipper of the Ocean Institute’s 65-foot marine educational vessel, the RV Sea Explorer. The San Clemente resident has made his home here since 1970 when he moved to town from L.A. with his family and attended Marco Forster Middle School. Life was different in the quiet beach town from L.A. and Mike notes that he quickly developed a love “for the sea and all things salty.” 

When Mike was ready to go to college, he found that San Diego State University had a Zoology program which included studies of marine vertebrates. It matched his interest in oceanic sciences. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology with an emphasis on Marine Vertebrates.

Tackling the Charter Boat Industry
By working in tackle shops in his spare time, Mike got to know the charter boat owners. One of them offered him an opportunity that set the course of his professional life. 

The winter break at SDSU was unusually long in 1976, and Mike had an opportunity to travel on back-to-back whale watching trips to Baja California. He applied to the owner who offered him a job washing dishes onboard. 

The boat was under the command of a single skipper at the time. As it turned out, the Coast Guard required that there be at least two skippers on such a long trip. There was no school to attend to get a license, so crew members had to learn on the fly and pass a Coast Guard administered test.  Two deckhands on board had taken the exam multiple times but were still having trouble passing it. Mike quickly gathered the testing material together and studied it well. When it came time to take the test, Mike passed with flying colors and the boat now had its second skipper. 

“Although the owner would not have trusted me to change a light bulb on his boat, I was the only one of the crew besides the main skipper who could pass the test that would allow the boat to continue its trips,” he said. 

Getting a Skipper’s License
It has gotten easier to get a skipper’s license these days. There is still no official apprenticeship or academy to attend, but there are a number of schools offering three-week classes to help people pass the licensing exam. “The test is more of an exam on minutia rather than seamanship,” says Mike, and the deckhands were just not oriented that way. They did eventually pass the licensing exam after about eight tries each, though they knew much more than Mike did at the time about running the boats and all the systems onboard. There are no laws prohibiting someone from running their own commercial charter with passengers. There are also no requirements for refresher classes or re-testing, but eyesight and hearing are checked every five years. 

Answering the Call
When Mike graduated from college, he explored the California State Fish and Game Department as a possible career. He began skippering in earnest on sport fishing charters from Dana Point to San Diego, eventually building his own business in the industry. He enjoyed running his own show, but an opportunity came along from the Ocean Institute when a skipper walk-off sent managers scrambling to find a new skipper for their at-sea education programs. Mike got the call from a former friend and interviewed for the position. A short while later, then-Director Stan Cummings put him in charge of the boat – manager, maintenance and everything else. Mike has remained with the Ocean Institute for 19 years, and enjoys it as much now as he did on his initial trial run. 

Mike’s favorite thing about being a skipper is being with the kids on the boat when they go on the water for the first time. 

“Seeing the ocean and the sea-life through a child’s eyes is amazing. We get to be the bridge that connects a child with the ocean. To actually get to do this every day with the kids is such a privilege.”

Protecting Our Oceans - Legislation or Education?
Mike feels that Stan summed it up best when he expressed the philosophy of the Ocean Institute in five simple words: “You can’t legislate ocean health,” he continued, “but if you take eight-year-olds and instill the love of the ocean in them, you won’t need laws about protecting the ocean because their love of that environment would cause them to want to protect it at all costs.
“We are like a cult,” adds Mike. “We have thousands of kids per year come through here. Each one has a positive awe-inspiring experience with the ocean. They each tell their friends and families who pass the word along and the love spreads.”

In addition to developing an immense store of information about marine mammal behavior, he has discovered some important truths about himself. 

“Be pleasant all the time to people because you never know who you’re talking to. That yachtsman who just moored his boat in your spot on the dock might be there to write the organization a check! Through taking that to heart, I learned that I really like being non-confrontational.

“Another important self-discovery I’ve made is that I can be cool under pressure. I never would have known that if I hadn’t become a skipper. There are so many things that can be a challenge on a boat, and often there is no one above you to go to. You have to handle any challenge that comes along, even if it’s a false alarm. OI boats have never had safety problems but we have had to occasionally run the boat on one engine (we have two) so as not to disappoint kids waiting to go aboard for their adventure. We always remember that we’re here for the kids.”