Whales Can’t Tell Jokes, So I Do It for Them

An Ode to My Time as a Social Media Intern for the National Marine Sanctuary System

By Mitra Kashani

March 2020

Social media posts can make us feel all kinds of emoceans.

mitra kashani

From that warm, fuzzy feeling we get after coming across a photo of an otterly adorable sea otter, to the intrigue and excitement that overcomes us when witnessing newly discovered creatures in the deep blue. As a social media Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, my goal was to transform these emotions into a wave of inspiration for people to experience and protect our National Marine Sanctuary System. I did this by developing posts about almost everything under the sea, all the while using a healthy dose of bad puns and a dash of dad jokes.

During my internship, I developed social media posts for Earth Is Blue, a campaign to educate and inspire the public about our national marine sanctuaries through photos and videos. Earth Is Blue was developed because many people don’t know what our sanctuaries are – people like me. About a year and a half ago, the sanctuary system was an enigma to me. I knew by their name that national marine sanctuaries protected marine ecosystems (thanks, context clues), but beyond that I couldn’t tell you how they did this, or how we could experience them. When I came across the opportunity to teach others about our national marine sanctuaries, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to not only hone my communication skills, but also learn alongside the people I’m engaging with.

instagram post with a picture of humpback whales and a sea lion
This is an example of a social media post I curated for Earth Is Blue, a campaign that educates and inspires the public about our national marine sanctuaries through photos and videos...and the occasional bad pun. Photo: Douglas Croft

Today, I can tell you that we have 14 national marine sanctuaries and two marine national monuments that protect a plethora of life under and above our ocean and Great Lakes (and most recently, a river!). But there’s much more to the story. Each vibrant coral reef bustling with life, each humpback whale migrating thousands of miles with her newborn calf, and every shipwreck embedded in the sand has a tale to tell. The only problem is that they can’t relay these stories themselves. That’s where Earth Is Blue comes in: using this platform as a social media intern, I got to share these stories, and hopefully inspired others to protect our sanctuaries and the people and creatures that call them home.

instagram post with a close-up of a red irish lord
After selecting a photo for a social media post, I wrote a caption tailored to the photo’s subject and the national marine sanctuary it comes from. A creative hook – like a pun, joke, or a question – leads viewers into the rest of the post, which could include interesting facts about the subject and/or the national marine sanctuary, or action items they can take to follow up the information they’ve just learned. Photo: Katy Laveck Foster

Before I go any further, a little backstory. I’m a biology graduate student studying environmental microbiology. I’ve spent many hours conducting research in a lab, and many more hours demystifying the data I've collected behind a computer. And every step of the way, I’ve wondered: how can I relay my research to people in a way that will leave them empowered with the information they’ve just learned, rather than intimidated by it?

The sanctuaries internship allowed me to develop skills to do just that. While staring at a blank document waiting to be decorated with a week’s social media captions, I reminded myself that it's okay to use simple language to describe complex scientific concepts. It’s also more than okay to throw some lighthearted jokes in the mix, which includes pulling inspiration from memes (they won’t always be fin slappers – and that’s fine!)

instagram post of two birds standing on two green sea turtles
If I can’t decide on a good caption for an Earth Is Blue social media post, I ask others to do it for me! Creating an opportunity for people to interact with Earth Is Blue posts gives them a chance to share their ideas while connecting with sanctuaries without physically having to visit one. Photo: Mark Sullivan/NOAA

I also wanted Earth Is Blue to go beyond the social media post. So I made a habit of including resources that people could access after reading a tweet or an Instagram caption – like where to learn more about the maritime history of Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, or to discover recreation opportunities in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. I wanted to curate posts that were inclusive and inviting for everyone who came across them. This way, we can all see and experience the sanctuaries as places we belong to, and places that we have the power to shape just as much as the scientists and conservationists who study them.

instagram post of a lionfish
There’s only so much information about our national marine sanctuaries and their inhabitants that can be condensed into a social media post. Including resources for people to learn more about a post – such as invasive lionfish in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary – is one way to make our sanctuaries more accessible! Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

Communicating a Sanctuary’s Cultural Significance

National marine sanctuaries mean a lot of things to a lot of people. They protect cherished coastlines and wildlife, serve as natural classrooms, provide an array of recreation opportunities, and safeguard culturally significant resources. Social media can help us learn about people's lived experiences with sanctuaries, and even inform some marine conservation best practices.

For one, the environments protected by national marine sanctuaries play an important role in the culture and traditions of many coastal communities. Take Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in California, for instance. The sanctuary protects over a thousand miles of ocean habitat around the Northern Channel Islands, which includes cultural resources for native communities like the Chumash people. Each year, members of the Chumash community journey to their homeland in Limuw, or Santa Cruz Island, and pass through the sanctuary using a traditional canoe called a tomol. For the Chumash people – and many other native and coastal communities – marine conservation is deeply embedded in their history and way of life, even before national marine sanctuaries came into existence. Today, the sanctuary system partners with these communities to safeguard the culturally significant sites and resources within the marine ecosystems. Telling their stories on social media reminds us that sanctuaries protect more than just wildlife and scenic views; they collaborate with people to protect cultures, histories, and their intergenerational practices of caring for land and water.

instagram post with a photo of people paddling a tomol
Social media can be a powerful tool to share stories about the cultural and historical significance of national marine sanctuaries. Here, the story of the Chumash community journeying to their homeland of Limuw while passing through Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary reminds us that sanctuaries are just as important for protecting people and cultures as they are for protecting wildlife and landscapes. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Sanctuaries are for You and Me

While living near a national marine sanctuary has its own perks, having one in your backyard isn’t a prerequisite to experiencing it! Another important way that Earth Is Blue educates people about sanctuaries is showing us all the different opportunities we have to experience them responsibly. Prior to my internship, I thought national marine sanctuaries were pretty much off limits to the public. But I was shorely mistaken. After learning that sanctuaries are indeed places we can all experience, I developed posts to share all the ways people can visit and explore them (spoiler: you don’t have to be a scuba diver to see the kelp forests of Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, nor a surfer to experience Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary!).

instagram post with a picture of people paddling a mackinaw boat
Social media posts are an important tool in connecting people to place. Sharing examples of ways that we can access the different national marine sanctuaries all the while being stewards of our environment is one way to keep us connected to our ocean and Great Lakes. Photo: David J. Ruck/NOAA

Just as important as learning how to get into your sanctuary is learning how to protect it. Social media can be a powerful tool to teach people about proper ocean etiquette and environmental stewardship, like keeping a safe distance while viewing wildlife, leaving no trace (cleaning up after yourself), and participating in coastal clean ups. Often environmental stewardship starts in the classroom, so it was also important to highlight the efforts of dedicated educators and scientists who engage new generations of ocean stewards every day. This includes promoting lots of good citizen science opportunities and inviting the general public to be involved in marine and coastal research, art, photography, and more (because the only barrier we need in marine science is the Great Barrier Reef, amirite?).

The best part of my internship this past year was knowing that I was learning about sanctuaries, about our ocean and Great Lakes, and about the people and cultures that protect them, just like everyone else. While my work writing for Earth Is Blue’s social media handles has o-fish-ally come to a close, my passion for communicating science and environmental stewardship is shore to make waves into my future endeavors as a science writer *mic drop*.

Mitra Kashani is a former Virtual Student Federal Service intern at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at George Mason University.

Want to follow in Mitra’s footsteps and craft em-ocean-al, informative social media posts? Check out the Virtual Student Federal Service.