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Diving Deeper: Volunteering with our National Marine Sanctuaries

Episode 35 (Jan. 19, 2012)

HOST: Welcome to Diving Deeper where we interview National Ocean Service scientists on the ocean topics and information that are important to you! I'm your host Kate Nielsen.

Today's question is...How can I volunteer with our national marine sanctuaries?

The national marine sanctuaries have a number of programs and volunteer opportunities at their 14 sanctuary sites. Today's episode will connect you, our listeners, with several sanctuary staff to explore a few of these volunteer opportunities.


HOST: To help us kick off this episode, we will first talk with Tracy Hajduk. Tracy is the National Volunteer Coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. Hi Tracy, welcome to our show.

TRACY HAJDUK: Hi Kate, thanks for having me.

HOST: So Tracy, are there really volunteer opportunities at all of the national marine sanctuaries?

TRACY HAJDUK: Yes, all of our national marine sanctuaries have ways that you can get involved. We definitely depend on our community members actually to help us reach our mission. Some sites have bigger volunteer programs than others, but we'll take somebody who's willing to help out at any site, and there's a lot of ways you can get involved.

We have volunteer programs where people are out doing community outreach events and really just spreading the message and letting people know what we're doing, what we're all about, and why the sanctuary is important. We have other programs that are working on beach cleanups or monitoring the beaches for seabirds and stranded marine mammals. We have a lot of volunteer programs that are checking out water quality in the area, which is really important, and trying to figure out how does the water look as it enters that sanctuary system. They're out there collecting this really valuable data for us. We have visitor centers where our volunteers are out there interacting with members of the public and school groups and so on, and even people just helping around the office is a really big help to us. We're actually a relatively small program and so our volunteers really help us expand what we're able to do on a daily basis.

HOST: Tracy, how much time do volunteers contribute to the sanctuaries?

TRACY HAJDUK: It does depend again on the volunteer program and the volunteer. At some sites, we do have volunteer programs that do require a set amount of time, maybe twice a month or a certain amount of hours per year, other sites though, depending on the position are much more flexible. So, there's always an opportunity for people to give as much time or as little time as they can. There's really a lot of ways to give and so we'll take as much time as they'll give us, but even just a little bit or once a year can really help us out too.

HOST: Do you need to have any specialized training to serve as a volunteer?

TRACY HAJDUK: Definitely not. We take volunteers who don't know anything about the ocean, but just want to get involved and we're happy to teach them everything they need to know. Some of our programs again do require a little bit more training, but we will provide that for you. And a lot of times it's just learning about the sanctuary and so on and all of our volunteer coordinators are wonderful educators themselves so they really are happy to teach people and help them along the way. And we also have a lot of our volunteers teaching each other, you really learn from the other volunteers and you'll kind of find these mentor volunteers will teach you and pull you along the way to teach you everything you need to know.

There are a few positions too that do require some additional certifications. Some of our more advanced volunteer positions, for instance, being a volunteer diver actually would require you to have certain certifications and so on so that one's a little more tricky, but again, we're always looking for help.

HOST: Tracy, how about for our listeners who don't live along the coast or even close to a national marine sanctuary, are there things that they can do to have an impact?

TRACY HAJDUK: Well Kate, there's a lot that anyone can do to have an impact. The main thing to remember is that everything that you do in your life can have an impact and does have an impact on the ocean. The water that rains down into our backyard ends up in the ocean eventually. And we really just want to make sure that we're living our life in a way that has the least impact on the ocean as possible because we really do depend on it for so much and the ocean really does impact our daily lives and so many things about our world.

So if you're not near a sanctuary, we always tell people, there's still so much you can do besides just thinking about the way that you live your life, but there's a lot of other opportunities and ways to get involved. We really encourage people to volunteer because it's such an amazing way to give back to your community and to the environment. Any town has either a park or maybe a national park or a museum or an aquarium or something like that where you can help out.

We've posted a lot of really good opportunities on some of the websites that we've given to you that have a lot of great stuff and people can always reach out and contact us to ask questions, but if you can some of those websites have opportunities all over the world. A really great one is It's got just really great opportunities for no matter what state you are in, you can get involved somehow. And we just encourage people to look and try and figure out what works for them and take some action.


HOST: Thanks Tracy for that great introduction on the volunteer opportunities available to us at the national marine sanctuaries. Now I'd like to dive deeper into a few of these programs just to give you all a chance to learn a little bit more about specifically what happens at each of the sites. First, let's talk by phone with Shauna Bingham on the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps. Shauna is the Volunteer and Outreach Coordinator at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary which is located about 20 nautical miles off Santa Barbara, California. Hi Shauna, welcome to our show.

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Hi Kate, thanks for inviting me to talk about our program.

HOST: Shauna, first, can you tell us briefly about your sanctuary. Why was the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary established and what is its mission?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary was established in 1980 and the sanctuary was established because it's a very special place off the coast of California. It provides important habitat for whales, sea birds, seals, sea lions, many different species of fish from warm to cold water habitats, and also maritime heritage resources. There are many undiscovered shipwrecks around the island and it's also a world-class destination for scuba diving, boating, just being out in nature on the Channel Islands and also a destination for research and science, it's a living laboratory, and it provides a place of solace where when you go out to the marine sanctuary and out to the Channel Islands, it's like the way California use to be, so it is a very special, unique place that we encourage people to enjoy.

HOST: And how does the Naturalist Corps fit into this?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: The Naturalist Corps program is really important for the marine sanctuary for our education and outreach program. Volunteers are trained to represent the sanctuary and the national park out on local whale watch trips, out on island hikes, local community outreach events. They also conduct citizen science. They do blue whale and humpback whale photo ID research to support population studies, collect general marine mammal sitings information. So not only are they our front lines to connecting with our community and the public about the special resources of the Channel Islands, they're also the citizen scientists collecting important information about managing sanctuary resources.

HOST: So Shauna, what do your volunteers do? What is a day like for them?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, it depends on which activity the volunteer decides to do, but they could be out whale watching, they could be out on one of the five Channel Islands in the marine sanctuary or in the national park leading a hike for the public, they could be at an Earth Day event, a whale festival, or they could be out conducting citizen science or taking photo ID of blue and humpback whales and collecting information about the locations of whales in the sanctuary. So they have a really diverse set of skill sets.

HOST: How much time do volunteers typically contribute and why do you think they do what they do?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, I think obviously, it's getting out in the field and getting out on the water is a big draw for our volunteers, but there's a common ground between all the volunteers and that is a love for the ocean, for the environment, for nature, and everybody wants to help to become stewards and protect this special place - the sanctuary, and the Channel Islands, and the park. And so that's what they have in common and that's their draw.

So, we have some volunteers that will do maybe 100 hours in a year, so they average about one day out in the field a month, and we have other volunteers that spend one or two days a week out in the field or more and equal hours of a part-time employee. So, we have a total of 140 volunteers in the program, collectively giving over 30,000 hours in a year, reaching about a half million people. So, it's a pretty effective program.

HOST: Wow, Shauna, that's great. So it sounds like your volunteers do just a wide range of different activities. If any of the folks that are listening here today are interested in volunteering and signing up, what do they need to do?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps volunteer program is really popular in our local community and right now, we're doing a training every two years and we have so many volunteers staying in the program that we do create a waiting list and then there is an application process and it's somewhat competitive to get into the program because of the fact that everybody loves the program and they stay involved. But we are always looking for anybody that's interested and excited about getting involved in becoming stewards and getting involved with the sanctuary to contact me, and it goes by fast and I encourage people to contact us at Channel Islands.

HOST: So Shauna, do volunteers need to have a special type of background to apply or some special kind of training that they need before they can sign up to be part of your program?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, the number one prerequisite for joining really any volunteer program including the Naturalist Corps is enthusiasm and passion for becoming a steward for this special place. But we do have so many applicants that we generally will select volunteers that have some sort of marine background - either boating, diving, maybe some science background. Some sort of knowledge that will help you to apply to all the training that our Naturalist Corps volunteers receive before becoming certified naturalists.

HOST: Shauna, what are you most proud of in terms of this program?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, I'm proud of the program because it accomplishes so much for the marine sanctuary and creating stewardship for the special resources we protect, and also finally after many years of courting this program, we have been recognized for our unique and successful partnership with the Park Service, for the citizen science conducted by volunteers, for our work with the tourism industry, the whale watch vessel operators, and we were recognized by the Department of Interior with the Take Pride in America award in 2011 for the best federal volunteer program. So that was really exciting for all of us including our volunteers.

HOST: And finally, Shauna, what is your favorite recreational activity in the sanctuary?

SHAUNA BINGHAM: Well, my favorite recreational activity in the marine sanctuary is boating. I love boating. I have my own boat. I take my family out whenever I get a chance. And obviously I get a chance to get out on the water working with the sanctuary, but I just can't get enough, and I love to be out there.


HOST: Thanks Shauna for that overview on this great volunteer opportunity. Now, let's move over to the east coast and talk, again by phone, to Todd Hitchins about another volunteer opportunity called Team OCEAN. Hi Todd, welcome to our show.

TODD HITCHINS: Hi Kate, thanks for having me on today.

HOST: So Todd, can you start us off with a little information about the sanctuary that your program is associated with, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary?

TODD HITCHINS: Of course. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was actually established by an act of Congress in 1990 to protect our coral reef ecosystem here in the Florida Keys. And for those who don't know, we actually have North America's only living coral reef which is also the third largest barrier bank reef in the entire world and it stretches over 200 miles. It goes from all the way south of Miami down past Key West about 60 miles, out to the Dry Tortugas and this area is one of our larger sanctuaries; it covers about 2,900 square nautical miles and offers protections to not only the coral reef, but also we have about 1,800 miles of mangrove shoreline and 2,000 square miles of sea grass bottom which is also a lot of important fish and bird habitat down here.

HOST: And how do your Team OCEAN volunteers support the sanctuary?

TODD HITCHINS: Well, as always, usually the challenge is to balance all the human uses with the need for resource protection. I think in the Florida Keys, the need for that was seen a long time ago and we've had different protections down here in south Florida and the Florida Keys for a long time. The sanctuary actually borders two national parks and a national wildlife refuge complex.

One way the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary manages the resource and the different user groups down here, we have a ton of people who come down to enjoy the environment whether it's recreational fishing, commercial fishing, diving. And so, one of the ways that Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has done the protection is through marine zoning and so there's different zones within the sanctuary that separate user groups and one of the most popular ones for divers and snorkelers is the sanctuary preservation areas otherwise known as SPAs down here.

And what Team OCEAN does is we station teams on sanctuary boats and we go out, particularly to those heavily-used areas for diving and snorkeling, like the preservation areas, and those are areas that are closed to fishing, so those are no-take areas, and what we do is we try to kind of promote the sanctuary, promote responsible use of the resource. We have teams that will approach boaters as they pull up to the mooring balls which are there so people don't have to anchor on the reef. And we'll just tell them, hey, they're in a protected zone, we offer free charts and brochures to the people that are on boats out there.

A lot of times we get a lot of people from out of town that come down and use the resource down here especially for diving, snorkeling, and fishing. So, a lot of times we're making people aware that those zones are closed to fishing. Sometimes if they don't know better, we'll see people that are dropping lines over the side of their boat and they're in a no-take area. So we try to get compliance with the sanctuary regulations more through education as opposed to law enforcement.

We try to promote dive safety, we try to promote safe use of the reef, encourage people not to drive over reef crests where the folks are diving, snorkeling in the shallow waters, and also just enlighten people on the regulations. We contact anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 boaters every season and we run the program from May to September, which is our busiest boating season down here, that's when we have the nicest weather for diving and snorkeling.

HOST: So Todd, as you mentioned, you're doing more of an education-based program, a little less of an enforcement approach. What kind of impact are you seeing in the sanctuary from these volunteer efforts?

TODD HITCHINS: Well, it's great. Like I said, a lot of these sanctuary preservation areas that our Team OCEAN program goes out and talks to the different users out there. We really get a lot of good feedback from a lot of the locals that enjoy using these areas, more for non-consumptive activities. So one thing you tend to see in these areas is a lot less fishing lines and the fish are bigger and more numerous and they get very friendly with the divers and snorkelers. They're kind of use to having folks around so it really promotes more of a wild, natural experience for the people that are there to do non-consumptive activities. And also, it helps maintain the integrity of those preservation areas. Having these no-take areas is a really big management strategy of the sanctuary and having these Team OCEAN volunteers out there educating the users and the boaters out there, you can really help maintain the fact that these are no-take areas. People know that you're going to be out there, people know that these areas that are set aside for diving and snorkeling and it really helps everybody, it helps the whole system out there.

HOST: If someone's interested in volunteering with Team OCEAN, do they need any specific expertise or is training provided to help them become a volunteer?

TODD HITCHINS: Specifically for the Team OCEAN volunteer program, there is a training that we hold every May, usually the first week or two of May and just educate folks on safe boating in the Keys. People can become boat operators for us, we actually do have several teams that go out on the boat without any sanctuary staff, but those are people who have been with the program a long time and usually have some kind of boat operation training. But we also teach them how to interact with folks, get them familiar with all the regulations and all the different literature that we have to pass out to the folks. We don't want to send anybody out there to answer questions if they don't have the information to pass along, so we do go through a little bit of a training session, it doesn't last too long, it's one day. And then you come out on the boat with folks who've already been out, and you come out a few times until you're comfortable.

HOST: So Todd, my last question for you, what is your favorite part of your job as the Team OCEAN coordinator?

TODD HITCHINS: If I had to be honest, I'd say getting out on the water instead of sitting behind my desk. It is very rewarding and I do notice a difference in the amount of people that are out there responsibly using the resource. People are very appreciative when you go on vacation somewhere. You want to learn about that place and people actually really appreciate having folks come up and talk to them. It's very non-confrontational as opposed to sometimes people get intimidated if one of the wildlife officers is approaching their boat, they get a little more intimidated, but when it's just a boat that says information or education on it, people are pretty receptive to having those conversations. It's very rewarding to educate people about the resource, especially people that might not live down here and they're really interested in it.

And then on top of that, just working with the volunteers. I'm pretty inspired by the amount of hours that people commit to marine conservation. We get full range from college students all the way through retirees that are down here during the winter and volunteer with some of our clean-ups. You get in the habit of looking for people doing things wrong and just working with these volunteers and seeing how many locals and visitors are really committed to marine conservation is pretty rewarding.

HOST: Thanks Todd for your insights into the Team OCEAN volunteer experience. And to close out today's episode, I'd like to go back to Tracy for one final question. Tracy, what is the greatest benefit, or the greatest impact, that your volunteers have on the National Marine Sanctuary System?

TRACY HAJDUK: You know, our volunteers are definitely one of our greatest assets. We cannot do our mission without them. They give countless hours and time and dedication and skill to us. Just last year we had over 100,000 volunteer hours which is equivalent to about 50 extra full-time employees. And so, without them, we would just have a more difficult time being at community events and getting the word out and doing beach clean ups and monitoring the waterways, doing all the really important things that they do.

So they have a drastic impact and like I said, we cannot accomplish our mission without our volunteers.

HOST: Thank you so much to Tracy, Shauna, and Todd for joining us on Diving Deeper and talking about a few of the volunteer opportunities for our listeners at our national marine sanctuaries. To learn more about these and other volunteer opportunities, please visit

That's all for today's show. Please join us for our next episode in two weeks.