PALO ALTO -- When the bat ray lazily emerged from the murky water, its tipped wings breaking the calm surface, the visitors on nine canoes had one collective reaction.

"Ohhhhhh!" 20 people said at the same time.

It may have been 8-year-old Ira Zweig who first caught sight of the aquatic resident of San Francisco Bay.

"Totally cool," he said.

That also summed up Saturday's Canoeing the Baylands excursion, sponsored by the nonprofit Environmental Volunteers organization, based in Palo Alto. Even better was where the money came from to pull off a glorious, sun-kissed morning at the Baylands Nature Preserve that was free and open to the public.

"We're here thanks to a grant that came out of the Cosco Busan oil spill," Eric McKee, the Environmental Volunteers' education programs coordinator, said after the canoes stopped so participants could more closely examine marshland plant life such as pickleweed and cordgrass.

In other words, something very good resulted from one of the darkest days in recent bay history.

"A tragedy happened that many people might not even remember now," said Kristi Moos, spokeswoman for the Environmental Volunteers. "But these kinds of spills happen every 10 years or so, and they are real threats to the bay. We hope a program like this helps folks understand why it's important to prevent these spills in the future -- and maybe inspire kids to protect the bay."

On Nov. 7, 2007, the 901-foot Cosco Busan container ship was heading from Oakland to South Korea when it brushed a Bay Bridge tower, ripping a 211-foot-long gash in the hull and dumping 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the water. The accident significantly fouled 69 miles of shoreline and killed more than 6,800 birds.

Part of the $44.4 million civil suit settlement, which the ship's owners and operating companies agreed to pay in 2011, went to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to enhance public awareness of the bay's thriving ecosystem. The Environmental Volunteers, a 42-year-old organization focused primarily on youth programs, received a nearly $15,000 grant for initiatives such as Saturday's canoe event.

This trip, which drew a wide range of people from elementary school age to senior citizens, was a rare opportunity to get a guided water tour of the marshland's rich habitat. After all, it's not every day that you get to be up close and personal with bat rays.

"We're used to walking the hills,but not floating around in the water," said Johnny Zweig, 48, of Cupertino, who was there with his son, wife Grace and father-in-law, Kexu Yuan. "It's just a different perspective. It's easy to look at the bay as something that's always in your way when you're trying to get somewhere. But it's really this beautiful, living thing."

After a brief safety chat, complete with making sure life vests were properly secure, the canoeists headed off on the shimmering water into the winding sloughs that were easy to navigate thanks to a high tide.

Aditya Nikumbh, 8, of Palo Alto, shyly said he was looking forward to seeing "birds." But don't be fooled by his quiet demeanor, added his mother.

"He was up early this morning," said Kaveree Kajale, 39. "He was really excited about this."

And he wasn't disappointed because there were plenty of feathered friends to see, including Western Gulls and American Avocets along the shoreline as well as a Turkey Vulture soaring in the blue sky.

This was the second of four planned canoe trips. The first was in early August, done in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Peninsula.

"The kids weren't ready for the trip to end," McKee said. "They didn't want to go back to the dock."

But all good things must come to a close, and as the canoes fought the tide back to the dock Saturday, guide Ashley Finden pointed toward the shore. A solitary Snowy Egret appeared to be watching the meandering progress of the canoes.

Maybe it will be there waiting when the next canoe excursion hits the water.

Another Canoeing the Baylands trip is scheduled for Saturday, September 28. For more information, visit www.evols.org