Strength in Numbers: Building Community Investment in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

By Amity Wood

April 2017

volunteers on kayaks in the water
Volunteers for Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's Team OCEAN program serve as trained naturalists on the water. Photo: G. Stewart

Spanning from Marin to Cambria, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 6,094 square miles offshore of central California. Running along almost one-quarter of California's coastline, the sanctuary protects one of the richest, most diverse marine environments in the world. Wave-swept beaches, lush kelp forests, rugged tide pools, and one of the deepest underwater canyons in North America are just a few of the habitats found within the sanctuary. The varied habitats provide food and shelter for 34 species of marine mammals, more than 180 species of seabirds and shorebirds, at least 525 species of fish and 31 phyla of invertebrates, four species of sea turtles, and more than 450 species of marine algae.

As remarkable as the numbers of inhabitants are, even more impressive is the number of volunteers that engage in sanctuary research, citizen science, and education programs. Over 450 active volunteers serve as the eyes and ears for the health of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. These volunteers support sustainable public use and help sanctuary managers protect the sanctuary's resources. They monitor water quality, restore habitat, conduct beach surveys, serve on the sanctuary's advisory council, monitor wildlife, interpret shoreline resources for the public, and educate the public at the sanctuary's visitor centers.

Dedicated volunteers are a critical element of community engagement; they help safeguard marine sanctuaries as America's underwater treasures. "One of the most important assets of the sanctuary is the network of dedicated and passionate volunteers that inform and inspire nearly 100,000 people per year in our visitor centers, on coast-side paths, and on kayaks," says Paul Michel, superintendent of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. "They are our ambassadors and champions, promoting sanctuary stewardship every day."

volunteers on kayaks in the water
Since 2000, Team OCEAN volunteers have prevented over 2,000 disturbances to marine animals along the sanctuary coastline. Photo: G. Stewart

Monthly beach observation surveys of deceased marine organisms are collected through the sanctuary's Beach COMBERS (Coastal Ocean Mammal / Bird Education and Research Surveys) program, which gathers information on birds and marine mammals to help in the early detection of unusual mortality events related to algal blooms or oil spills. Data collected by volunteers have been utilized by resource managers, scientists, and educators as a way to teach students methods of conducting science, identifying marine organisms, and analyzing survey data.

The sanctuary's Team OCEAN (Ocean Conservation Education Action Network) volunteers serve as trained naturalists on the water in kayaks, engaging with other kayakers to increase sanctuary awareness and to promote respectful wildlife viewing to minimize marine mammal disturbances. Since 2000, Team OCEAN volunteers have interacted with over 93,000 ocean users and have intervened more than 2,000 times to keep harbor seals, sea otters, sea lions, and birds along the coast from being harassed.

volunteer collecting water samples
A sanctuary volunteer participates in Snapshot Day monitoring in San Luis Obispo County. Photo: J. McGerry

Hundreds of trained volunteers from the sanctuary's Citizen Watershed Monitoring Network participate in year-round water quality and watershed monitoring, including through Snapshot Day, First Flush, and Urban Watch programs. With the goal of collecting water quality data about the health of rivers, streams, and storm drains flowing into the sanctuary, informed citizens and resource managers can best understand threats to ocean habitats and identify pollution prevention measures. Volunteers collecting valuable water quality data play a vital role as community stewards of the sanctuary's watersheds.

Bay Net volunteer naturalists engage over 35,000 visitors annually by introducing the sanctuary and local wildlife easily seen along the coast with binoculars and spotting scopes, such as seabirds, sea otters, harbor seals, and whales. Stationed at critical beaches during seal pupping season, Bay Net naturalists educate visitors about safe wildlife viewing distances to prevent disturbances to mothers and their pups. These dedicated volunteers work to build awareness and appreciation of the sanctuary for thousands of local and international visitors each year.

volunteer naturalists use binoculars and spotting scopes to educate the public about local wildlife
Bay Net volunteer naturalists use binoculars and spotting scopes to educate the public about local wildlife. Photo: H. Brown

Monterey Bay visitors can also stop by the sanctuary's visitor centers in Santa Cruz or San Simeon to be welcomed by trained, knowledgeable docents interpreting exhibits, conducting guided tours, and assisting educational school programs. Volunteer docents educate 82,000 visitors each year about balancing sustainable recreational uses with resource protection, while encouraging enjoyment and stewardship of our national marine sanctuaries.

Building community engagement through a diverse array of volunteer programs has been a vital part of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary's 25-year history. With extensive opportunities in research, education, and resource management, community members gain a deeper connection and investment in the protection of the sanctuary for the next 25 years to come. Learn how you, too, can contribute to a healthy sanctuary on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary website.

Amity Wood is the education and outreach coordinator at Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.