hannah macdonald standing on a snowy shore

MacDonald stands on the shore of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Inspiring the Next Generation

By Hannah MacDonald

Hannah MacDonald
Hannah MacDonald. Photo: NOAA

Michigan is several hundred miles away from the nearest salty shore. Fortunately for me, it is hugged by 3,288 miles of freshwater coastline. Standing on the edge of the Great Lakes feels like standing on the shore of a mighty ocean. Once you dive underwater, you glimpse a world of freshwater fish inhabiting rocky reefs and historic shipwrecks as their own sanctuaries.

Thunder Bay has been my teacher, a haven for my growth as an individual, and a place to foster my passions."

Throughout my life, I have spent my time diving, sailing, and exploring in Lake Huron. Alpena, Michigan, my hometown, sits beside the lake. Growing up, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary was essentially in my backyard.

Each time I dove underwater, I traveled back in time and saw pristinely preserved maritime heritage and marine life. Thunder Bay instilled a sense of wonder in me. In high school, I became a volunteer at the sanctuary. I taught visitors about invasive species and Great Lakes health, and supported Alpena Shipwreck Tours by narrating maritime history tours on a glass bottom boat. I engaged with visitors, educating them on the importance of protecting the Great Lakes.

Not only a marine sanctuary, Thunder Bay was my teacher, a haven for my growth as an individual, and a place to foster my passions. I marveled at the larger network of sanctuaries across the country that protected a variety of ecosystems, and how my sanctuary was a part of that system.

Still, it wasn't until I ventured across the country to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary for NOAA's Ocean for Life science and cultural exchange program that I truly connected to the ocean and its rich ecosystems for the first time. While watching marine mammals thrive in the protected area and exploring a towering kelp forest, I felt a special relationship with this place. That connection would ultimately drive my motivation for ocean advocacy and my link to national marine sanctuaries.

I was motivated to spread that awareness of the human connection to the ocean. I had been shocked to learn how much damage marine debris does to marine ecosystems, so I created a plastic pollution awareness group in my hometown called Plastics FLOAT (For the Love Of Alpena Today). The National Marine Sanctuary System became my resource center as a youth committed to making a wave of change.

Hannah MacDonald looking through a observation device
In 2013, MacDonald participated in the Ocean for Life program, an international ocean science and cultural exchange program that took place in national marine sanctuaries. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary opened the door to ocean conservation for me, and now, as a college student at Michigan State University, I still work hand-in-hand with sanctuaries. In the summer of 2017, as a NOAA Hollings Scholar, I served as the Junior Oceanographer programmer at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. I wanted to inspire students just like Ocean for Life and Thunder Bay had inspired me. I developed summer programs that focused on marine ecosystems of the Olympic Coast, marine technology, and ocean literacy. I am continuously learning about the ocean, conservation, and stewardship, and gaining skills in leadership and communication through my experiences with sanctuaries.

For me, sanctuaries are much more than protected underwater parks. They are a place to further education, encourage adventure, strengthen coastal communities, and drive change to safeguard the health of our blue planet. I am continually moved by the deep connection, sense of place, and endless learning opportunities that the sanctuary system provides me. My experiences at Thunder Bay, Channel Islands, and Olympic Coast national marine sanctuaries have ignited my passion, advanced my career path, and created endless opportunities for me to become a lifelong advocate for this big, blue, ocean planet.

Hannah MacDonald is a recent graduate of Michigan State University and a long-time participant in National Marine Sanctuary System programs.