Sanctuary Staff Feature: Kelly Drinnen


By Kelly Drinnen

March 2017

kelly drinnen leading an activity
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary education specialist Kelly Drinnen (at right) leads an activity for the Down Under, Out Yonder workshop. Photo: NOAA

As an education specialist, I talk to all different kinds of groups and they almost always want to know if I'm a marine biologist. My answer -- that my degree is in Spanish with a minor in mathematics -- usually raises a few eyebrows. After college, I worked in the computer field, first in software testing, then in software/hardware resale. Winter weather brought me to my ocean career.

dive team posing for photo wearing their dive gear
Kelly (second from left, bottom row) participated as part of the science team during the 2015 Flower Garden Banks Lionfish Invitational. The team surveyed the sanctuary's predator, prey, and general fish populations. Photo: NOAA

Having grown up in the northeast and not tolerating cold very well, my goal after college was to head south. When an opportunity came along for me to move to Orlando, Florida, I took it. While I was looking for that next computer-related job, I answered an ad for a tour guide at SeaWorld. I thought that would be something fun to do until I found a "real" job. I'd always loved ocean stuff, but had never considered it a career option.

The pay was low and I had to work evenings, weekends, and holidays, but I loved every minute of my job and couldn't wait to go to work each day. I loved being outdoors, talking to people from all over the world, getting paid to learn more about the ocean and the creatures that live in it, and basically hanging out with happy people on vacation. I'd found my passion! I eventually quit looking for other work and focused, instead, on moving my way up through the ranks in the Education Department at SeaWorld. I started out giving behind-the-scenes tours and talking to guests at the animal exhibits, then worked my way up to lead, then training coordinator, then assistant supervisor.

Next stop was Galveston, Texas, where I took on an education management position at Moody Gardens, eventually becoming the education curator. The timing was ideal for me to oversee the development of all the educational programming for their new aquarium that opened in 1999. While there, I had my first exposure to national marine sanctuaries through interactions with the folks from Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary for events and meetings.

I also participated in the sanctuary's Down Under, Out Yonder educator workshop in 1999 and 2001. That workshop, which included diving in the sanctuary, was one of the most amazing experiences I've ever had. My first dive included an immediate close encounter with two manta rays, swooping and swirling around just six feet away from me -- I was hooked! Before the end of the workshop, I was ready to join the staff.

manta ray swimming overhead, a diver taking a picture in the background
Manta rays are frequent visitors to Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: G.P. Schmahl/NOAA

In 2004, my chance came to apply for an education position with Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and I was hired. I've been working for the sanctuary ever since and have led the Down Under, Out Yonder workshop since 2005.

My favorite thing about working for the sanctuary is the variety in my job. I use my math and computer skills to do website and social media. I participate in a variety of events from community festivals to teacher conferences to Rotary and dive club presentations. I partner with zoos and aquariums to do exhibits and graphics. I use my Spanish to communicate with visitors at events, on the web, and through video production. I get to participate in research activities from long-term monitoring, to sample collection, to remotely operated vehicle (ROV) work, to lionfish dissections. And then they ask me to talk about all these things I enjoy and share them with others. Who wouldn't love that! 

Kelly Drinnen aboard a boat speaking to participants
Kelly (at left, wearing fish-covered t-shirt) speaks to one of the Down Under, Out Yonder participants on board the M/V Fling. Photo: Janene Fowler

Kelly Drinnen is an Education & Outreach Specialist at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.