The Contributions of Older Volunteers to the National Marine Sanctuary System

By Elizabeth Moore

August 2021

Every year, our volunteers help us achieve our mission of protecting, studying, and sharing our precious ocean and Great Lake areas. About 30% of volunteers in the United States are Baby Boomers, those generally 56 to 74 years old, and another 9% are members of the Silent Generation, 75 to 92 years old. These are individuals who are making the most of what authors Ken Dychtwald and Bob Morison call our “third age:” retirement, after our first 30 years are spent in growing and learning and our second 30 years are devoted to family and profession. In their view, our third age is an opportunity for us to do the things we never had time for before, to reinvent ourselves, again, with the advantage of a life’s worth of experience and wisdom.

American culture has long valued service to each other. Some of the most well-known volunteer organizations in the country today can trace their roots back over a century ago including the American Red Cross (1881), the United Way (1887), and the Rotary Club (1905).

volunteers remove a large pile of marine debris from the water
Every year, volunteers help remove tons of marine debris from the islands in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Image: NOAA

Today, volunteerism remains as strong and valued as it has ever been to the American populace. According to AmeriCorps, more than 77 million of us currently volunteerーcontributing nearly 7 billion hours of service annuallyーworth an astonishing $167 billion. A significant portion of the volunteer force in the country are older Americans.

We here at the National Marine Sanctuary System are grateful that so many Americans, including those in their third age, have chosen to give their time, energy, skills, and passion to helping us manage, study, and share our precious underwater places. Every year, our volunteers help us achieve our mission of protecting, studying, and sharing our precious ocean and Great Lake areas. During 2020, the pandemic had an impact on our volunteer activities, but in 2019, almost 12,000 volunteers, many of them retirees, donated 119,000 hours worth $3 million to national marine sanctuaries. Across our sanctuaries and communities, our volunteers are a force for good. Read on to learn more about how our wonderful volunteers support the places and wildlife they love.

For the Love of Whales and Birds

Volunteers for the Ocean Count in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary make notes of the spyhopping whales offshore. Image: Bruce Parsil/NOAA

The magnificent humpback whales that are the reason for the existence of Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary spend each winter, from November to April, in the Hawaiian Islands; but the volunteers, most of whom are retirees, who are the force behind the KīheiVisitor Center and its programs work all year round. They serve as docents and naturalists, lecturers and educators, whale counters and visitor greeters; some even helped with the renovation of the sanctuary’s visitor center in the early days of the site!

a volunteer peering through binoculars on a research vesselw with several other people aboard in the background
Some of the Seabird Steward volunteers keep an eye out for the sanctuary’s avian residents. Image: Evelyn Ganson/NOAA

Along the Massachusetts coast within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, volunteers are the key to the success of the Seabird Stewards program. While many know of the whales that frequent the sanctuary, feeding over the bank, few know that seabirds come there to feed as well. Launched in 2010, the program recruits experienced birders as citizen scientists who support research projects on the water in collaboration with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Five research trips are conducted annually to the sanctuary to identify and record bird and other wildlife sightings, all of which are entered into a database to help sanctuary managers identify long-term population trends in seabirds and provide information on the health of the ecosystem.

Naturalists on Land and at Sea

The 2019 graduates of the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps smile proudly! Image: National Park Service

Heading over to California, we reach Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, which along with Channel Islands National Park protects the land and waters of Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, San Miguel, and Santa Barbara islands. The sanctuary and national park joined forces two decades ago to found the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps, a group of volunteers trained to serve as naturalists aboard vessels and on island hikes, and to participate in outreach and citizen science events. Volunteers accepted into the program are specially trained about sanctuary and park resource protection programs, interpretation techniques, and an overview of the physical, biological, and cultural aspects of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands. Most of the members of the Naturalist Corps are highly dedicated retired and senior citizens, including several that have volunteered for over twenty years.

two people on kayaks
Members of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary’s Team OCEAN await visitors in the sanctuary. Image: Amity Wood/NOAA
A volunteer on a boat hands a recreational boater a brochure with information about safe boating practices
A member of Team OCEAN shares sanctuary information with boaters in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Image: NOAA

Heading up the coast a bit, we reach Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, stretching along more than 300 miles of shoreline from Big Sur up to San Francisco Bay. Here, retired and older Americans make up the majority of the volunteer programs of the sanctuaryーBay Net Shoreline Naturalists, Team OCEAN (Ocean Conservation Education Action Network,) Urban Watch, First Flush, and Snapshot Dayーthat help monitor parameters like water quality and wildlife health, and serve as naturalists and educators on, in, and beside the water. Some of the volunteers have become experts in their own right and have even helped design the volunteer programs and train new recruits!

On the other side of the country, the volunteers of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary’s Team OCEAN are no less dedicated. One of the most visited national marine sanctuaries, the sanctuary staff rely on these volunteers to help reach the thousands of people out on the water every day. Team OCEAN volunteers are stationed on sanctuary vessels at heavily visited reef sites throughout the Keys during peak recreational boating seasons and heavy-traffic holiday weekends. Volunteers inform the public about the sanctuary and its special zones, encourage proper use of sanctuary resources, and provide tips on how to practice basic boating safety.

A Stroll on the Beach

A Beach Watch volunteer examines the carcass of a seabird. Image: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Our journey ends in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, stretching from the urban coast of San Francisco offshore to the wilderness of islands protected by Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Here, the volunteers of Beach Watch, NOAA’s first modern citizen science program, walk the beaches of the sanctuary to survey and document the conditions they find in habitats and wildlife along the shore. Now more than 150 citizen scientists-strong, many of them senior Americans and retirees, Beach Watch monitors beaches spanning 210 miles of coast from Point Año Nuevo in San Mateo County north to Manchester Beach in Mendocino County.

Become a Volunteer!

Student participants in the Ocean Guardian School Program undertake volunteer conservation projects. Such projects will hopefully inspire both a lifelong love of and stewardship for the ocean, and volunteer efforts to help protect it! Image: Claire Fackler/NOAA

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. often said in his speeches: “Life's most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’” We are grateful that so many people, in their marvelous third age, have found the answer to that question in volunteering for their national marine sanctuaries.

Helping us also could also help you in some unexpected ways. Volunteering has been shown in general to have benefits for physical and emotional health, but volunteering specifically to help marine protected areas has other benefits too, including active learning, mental stimulation, enjoyment of the outdoors, socializing with fellow volunteers, and increased physical flexibility and balance.

If you would like to join, check out our opportunities to volunteer.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.