Valley People: Passion for ocean drives Scotts Valley entrepreneur
by Sandi Olson
Jun 21, 2012 | 1366 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Chris LaFranchi, shown here on a skin diving trip to Palos Verdes in 1978 -- when he was 14 -- earned a graduate degree from University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology and recently founded OneReef, which seeks to protect coral reefs throughout the world. Courtesy photo
Chris LaFranchi, shown here on a skin diving trip to Palos Verdes in 1978 -- when he was 14 -- earned a graduate degree from University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology and recently founded OneReef, which seeks to protect coral reefs throughout the world. Courtesy photo
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Chris LaFranchi. Courtesy photo
Chris LaFranchi. Courtesy photo
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Chris La Franchi is a Scotts Valley surfer and diver who turned his lifelong passion for the ocean into a career preserving tropical coral reefs.

“I was always drawn to the ocean and have vivid memories of going to the tide pools at Palos Verdes peninsula and skin diving with my uncle,” La Franchi said of his Southern California upbringing. “I was astounded by the colors and diversity of life underwater.”

His parents, Steve and Carol, worked at University of California, Los Angeles. There, La Franchi met divers and surfers who influenced him at a young age. He learned to swim and skin dive at UCLA and became a licensed scuba diver at 18.

His parents divorced when La Franchi was 12. As a result, he left Los Angeles and moved to Portland, Ore., to live with his father. But he returned to Southern California every summer to live with his mother and work as a junior guard.

After graduating from high school in 1982, La Franchi left for Oregon State University to major in biology. In 1987, he enrolled in graduate school at University of Hawaii's Institute of Marine Biology and ended up studying natural resource economics.

“I realized that I didn't want to become an academic marine biologist. I was interested in conservation, and this was about managing people,” La Franchi said. “I use both disciplines in my work today.”

In 1991, La Franchi married Jeanette Bingham, a coed from Oregon State who had just received her medical degree at University of California, San Francisco, and now works as a nurse practitioner in Scotts Valley. The couple moved to San Francisco but ended up living in different countries over the next several years.

Some of La Franchi's jobs included working for The World Bank as an economist in Papua New Guinea and working for the U.S. Agency For International Development in Indonesia.

La Franchi got his first real conservation job in 1997 with the World Wildlife Fund. The couple moved to South Africa for two years while he worked with the government of Namibia on a community-based conservation project.

They finally returned to San Francisco, where La Franchi worked as a consultant for the Environmental Defense Fund. Their daughter, Isabel, was born in 2000, followed by a son, Quinn, in 2001.

“I liked being close to the ocean, and we decided to move to the Scotts Valley area in 2003,” La Franchi said. “We took possession of our home on our son, Quinn's birthday.”

La Franchi is now the CEO of OneReef, a nonprofit he founded that works with Pacific Island communities to conserve and manage coral reefs.

“We bring together Pacific Islanders and private philanthropists who live far apart but share a common interest in coral reef conservation,” La Franchi said. “I negotiate an agreement between these two parties. They are generally high-tech people from Silicon Valley or the Seattle area.”

He is passionate about preserving coral reefs — the most diverse and oldest ecosystems in the ocean. Reefs provide direct benefits to more than 500 million people worldwide as barriers to storm waves that could crush coastal communities.

“As a scuba diver, I became aware of how fragile these reefs are and what we can do to help preserve them,” he said.

In studying coral reefs, La Franchi has traveled much of the world and the coral reefs of Indonesia are some of his favorites, he said.

La Franchi and his son recently left for a month in Palau. The area is a diver's dream and renowned for its marine biodiversity. It has dazzling coral reefs and sheltered coral gardens, filled with colorful fish and turtles.

“We currently have three project sites — Palau, Yap (Micronesia) and Australia,” said La Franchi. “Our goal is to have at least 25 sites in the western Pacific where we can work with the communities and forge partnerships.

“It's my desire that we can help others develop an awareness and appreciation for our marine habitat.”

- Sandi Olson of Scotts Valley is a writer, speaker and teacher. She writes about interesting people in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. Email her at sandiolson@comcast.net.

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