Community Engagement in National Marine Sanctuaries - PART 1: Volunteering

By Megan Howes

February 2017

Edited April 2023

National marine sanctuaries rely on volunteers like you! Volunteering is one way to explore our nation's underwater treasures while doing your part to ensure a healthy ocean and Great Lakes. Whether once a week or once a year, meaningful opportunities abound for visitors and locals alike with all levels of knowledge and commitment to contribute to marine conservation and stewardship.

When you volunteer with national marine sanctuaries, you join a community of individuals working to strengthen these special places in our ocean and Great Lakes. The diverse skills, knowledge, and support volunteers provide have made a substantive contribution to national marine sanctuaries since the mid 1990s, when the Beach Watch crew at Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary became NOAA's first volunteer program. Since then, the scope of projects taken on by volunteers has expanded to encompass the many goals of sanctuaries, including ocean conservation, maritime heritage preservation, and public education. Volunteer programs continue to grow across the sanctuary system and the total number of hours contributed rises every year.

When you volunteer with sanctuaries, you're signing up for programs that are recognized for their strength and robustness. For example, the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Sanctuary Ocean Count have both been named Take Pride in America Outstanding Federal Volunteer Programs, celebrating their significant contribution to environmental stewardship.

The Channel Islands Naturalist Corps is a specially-trained and knowledgeable volunteer team that collects valuable data on sanctuary resources, and educates more than half a million visitors annually on whale watches in the sanctuary, island hikes in Channel Islands National Park, and other community events on the coast of Southern California.

The Sanctuary Ocean Count monitors the size and distribution of the large aggregation of humpback whales that visit Hawaiʻi during their breeding and calving season. Every January through March, about 1,000 volunteers spread over 60 land-based sites to monitor whale activity. Their efforts are used to refine the sanctuary's role in conservation, and to coordinate shore-based whale watching opportunities for public education.

volunteers on a beach in hawaii looking through binoculars counting the number of whales passing by
Volunteers watch for humpback whales during Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary's annual Sanctuary Ocean Count. Photo: Paul Wong/NOAA

Volunteers also help sanctuaries with public outreach and education. Team OCEAN (Ocean Conservation Education Action Network) is a fleet of on-the-water docents who engage with and educate recreational boaters about natural history, special sanctuary zones, responsible wildlife viewing, and proper use of sanctuary resources. Team OCEAN volunteers serve as kayak naturalists in Monterey Bay and play a similar interpretive role in the Florida Keys, where they are stationed on NOAA vessels at heavily visited reefs. Recently, the program also expanded to Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Team OCEAN is an invaluable contact point for recreational visitors to sanctuaries: volunteers ensure responsible enjoyment of sanctuary resources and promote a positive experience through education.

two volunteers in kayaks looking for marine debris
Team OCEAN volunteers kayak in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Prefer to enjoy the marine environment from dry land? To engage the public through visual media, a few sanctuary communities (such as Gray's Reef in Georgia and Thunder Bay in Michigan) host ocean-themed film festivals and similar events, which are run smoothly with the help of volunteers. Similarly, sanctuary visitor centers are staffed by volunteer docents, and sanctuary content is featured at various inland partner facilities like aquariums and museums. Even if you aren't located near a sanctuary, or are unable to visit in person, experience the beauty and wonder of sanctuaries well beyond the coast.

The Sanctuaries 360 series offers people across the globe an opportunity to dive into national marine sanctuaries virtually, without ever getting wet. 360 degree videos and lesson plans have been created for Channel Islands, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale, Thunder Bay, Florida Keys, and Mallows Bay-Potomac River national marine sanctuaries, and the recently proposed sanctuary in Lake Ontario, with more on the way!

On the coast, you can help protect ocean ecosystems by helping keep beaches clean. Marine debris, such as discarded fishing gear and plastic trash, is a severe threat to coastal and marine wildlife. To reduce the amount of debris that reaches the ocean, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary works with Washington CoastSavers to hold regular beach cleanups. In addition to helping maintain cleaner beaches, volunteers record the types and amounts of trash for NOAA's Marine Debris Program. By studying the problem of marine debris, we have a better chance of solving it at the source. In 2022, 588 CoastSavers volunteers dedicated 4,704 hours to removing debris from the Washington shoreline. Other sanctuaries around the country hold beach clean-ups on a smaller scale, and of course, you don't have to be associated with the sanctuary or an organized event to do your part in keeping our ocean trash free!

group of volunteer posing with the marine debris they collected along the beach
From the year 2000 to 2017, more than 10,700 CoastSaver volunteers collected over 320 tons of marine debris in the Olympic Peninsula. Photo: Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA

To get involved, the only prerequisite in many cases is enthusiasm and dedication to the cause. Where certain knowledge is necessary, sanctuary staff will get you up to speed. Each year, new recruits join the ranks of returning volunteers. Stewardship of more than 620,000 square miles (and counting!) of sanctuary areas is a big undertaking, and given the ever growing threats to marine environments, we need all hands on deck. As Claire Fackler, national volunteer coordinator, explains, "volunteers and citizen scientists are an important part of our assurance that these special ocean areas we call national marine sanctuaries remain the underwater treasures they are—now and in the future. These volunteers are an essential link into local communities that help broaden awareness, appreciation, and ultimately stewardship of these underwater parks."

The National Marine Sanctuary System works at a national level because of local community engagement and dedicated support across the country. No matter where you live, from sea to shining sea, the ocean plays a role in your life. The sanctuaries themselves may be out of sight for many of us, but robust teams of volunteers make sure that our beaches, reefs, watersheds, and ocean heritage are never out of mind. It falls to each of us to ensure that our wealth of ocean resources are available for the future.

Explore the many rewarding volunteer opportunities at your national marine sanctuaries, or contact Claire Fackler, national volunteer coordinator at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.