Pacific Marine Mammal Center co-founder remembered at paddle-out

A paddle-out for John Cunningham, a co-founder of Pacific Marine Mammal Center was held Saturday at Picnic Beach. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

The extraordinary life of John Cunningham, a co-founder of Pacific Marine Mammal Center, was celebrated Saturday on and off the water at Picnic Beach.

About two dozen men, women, and children paddled offshore to watch as Cunningham’s ashes into the Pacific Ocean. Several of them were retired Laguna Beach lifeguards who worked alongside Cunningham for years. Onshore, more than 300 people flooded Heisler Park for the tribute.

Cunningham, 82, died on July 26 after hitting his head in a bad fall, his wife Stephanie told the Independent.

Stephanie, her daughter Laura Cunningham, and granddaughter Bella Goodrow dropped leis flown in from Hawaii to honor the family’s beloved patriarch.

“It was absolutely a beautiful day. I don’t know that anything could have gone better,” Stephanie Cunningham said. “He would have loved seeing all of his students and the funny stories.”

A former Marine Science teacher at Laguna Beach High School, Cunningham helped found PMMC to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals injured by natural and man-made circumstances. The nonprofit is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

Cunningham’s long-time friend Tim Dennis and Mark Klosterman, former chief of Laguna Beach Marine Safety, took turns pouring PMMC-emblazoned cans of Cunningham’s ashes near a kelp bed.

“We have arrived to return you to our Mother Ocean that you so deeply loved and cared for,” Dennis said. “We shall miss your presence in our lives but we know you will continue to live forever in our hearts and souls.”

Tim Dennis pours some of John Cunningham’s ashes into the ocean on Saturday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

A trio of Laguna Beach lifeguards riding WaveRunners and PMMC Zodiac boat crew watched over the paddlers with a Marine Safety Department drone flying overhead.

Peter Chang, CEO of Pacific Marine Mammal Center, watched the paddle-out from the catamaran Sycamore, owned by Laguna Beach resident Tom Hale. He was particularly moved by the groups of Laguna Beach High school alumni, marine life conservationists, and retired lifeguards who joined the memorial.

“We at PMMC know John as this bigger-than-life, legendary figure and today cemented just how big he is because he brought these circles together,” Chang said. “This kind of storybook ending was made for someone like John.”

Community members line the bluff at Heisler Park during a paddle-out for John Cunningham on Saturday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
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