Bringing Sanctuaries to Life: Behind the Scenes with Visual Information Specialist, Matt McIntosh

By Rachel Plunkett

May 2021

group of people posing with signage.

Each of your national marine sanctuaries has a unique story to tell, from the living marine resources, to historical artifacts, to the people who’s heritage and culture are bound to them. Our seven visitor centers throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System are places where these stories are told, and they draw over a quarter of a million visitors each year – tourists, field-trip-bound school children, marine enthusiasts, history buffs, and more. But much of the real excitement at many of these places occurs behind the scenes.

When you walk into a visitor center, a wealth of information is made available for you to interact with and explore in an engaging format, shedding light on the underwater treasures that might otherwise be invisible to us. This is the story of our visual information specialist here at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries who helps bring these special underwater places to life to inspire Americans across the nation.

The Creative Side of Marine Science and Discovery

person smiling on a boat with camera
Matt McIntosh prepares to get in the water and collect underwater photos and videos of sea lions in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Nick Zachar/NOAA

Matt McIntosh grew up in Maryland and has always loved to draw. After high school, Matt attended and received a degree in Applied Media Arts from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, with a focus on graphic design and photography. He now creates engaging visual content featuring the wildlife, people, and scientific discoveries in America’s underwater parks.

So you might be wondering, how does one stumble upon a career in visual ocean storytelling? A career that many would consider a true “dream job.”

“I love the outdoors and have always cared about the environment. This job is amazing because it allows me to combine my interest and curiosity about nature and science with my passion for creativity. I also love the idea that, at the end of the day, there’s a small chance I may have done a little something beneficial for our blue planet,” said Matt McIntosh, visual information specialist with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS), via the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. “I saw a job advertised in the Washington Post for graphic design with the National Ocean Service and I took that opportunity, which led me to amazing opportunities much further down the road that I never dreamed possible in my line of work, which is how I ended up here.”

three people leaning over a person in full dive gear laying on the ground
Divers practice rescue dive skills during a NOAA working diver training course. Photo: Greg McFall/NOAA

“My supervisor encouraged me to pursue so many other interests too. I started as a visual information specialist (senior graphic designer), but after several years I began creating customized art and visuals for special projects where there was a need for fresh content. I also became a member of the production crew as both a photographer and assistant videographer, because there was a need for more photographs of wildlife, people, and landscapes throughout the sanctuary system. I eventually underwent drone operator training and received an FAA license. They also sent me to the NOAA Dive Center in Seattle, Washington for three weeks to undergo an extensive training program and become a professional NOAA working diver,” said Matt.

This training opened the door to new opportunities at work, including helping with underwater film projects to tell stories about national marine sanctuaries through the experiences of scientists, conservationists, local businesses, tribal members, volunteers, and other stakeholders who work with NOAA to protect these special places.

a sea turtle
A sea turtle has its carapace cleaned by several reef fish. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
a large coral
A Hawaiian monk seal hauls out on the beach. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Journey Behind Earth Is Blue Magazine

Two people looking into a camera together
Matt McIntosh, visual information specialist, and Kate Thompson, director of the education and outreach division for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries set up for a photo shoot at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Vernon Smith/NOAA

Every year, a new issue of the Earth is Blue magazine is published, featuring narrative stories, fascinating discoveries, and beautiful imagery from each national marine sanctuary and marine national monument in America. A team of writers, editors, interpreters, and artists work collaboratively on the magazine throughout the year, and Matt usually works on one big visual information project that makes its debut as a tear-out, two-sided poster when the magazine gets published. This year, that work of art is an infographic explaining what happens to a whale’s body after it dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean – an event known as a “whale fall.” Matt said he felt this was a special project because not many people know what a whale fall is, since the phenomenon usually happens deep in the ocean and well out of human sight.

What was unique about this project, is that the whole thing started because scientists aboard the E/V Nautilus actually captured a whale fall in action in 2019 while broadcasting live from Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary for thousands of viewers to see around the world. The event made headlines, and really brought awareness to deep-sea exploration and sparked public interest in research on the ecology of whale falls. After that, the ONMS Education and Outreach Division knew the whale fall had to be featured in the 2020 magazine issue, and that Matt was the right person for the job.

“I watched videos from the expedition in Monterey Bay more times than you can imagine, communicated with scientists from the sanctuary, and spent numerous hours researching all the different critters that feast on a whale fall to make sure my work was as accurate as possible,” said Matt.

illustration of a whale fall
When a whale dies at sea, its body often sinks to the seafloor, and its carcass becomes what is known as a whale fall. Art: Matt McIntosh | Produced by Matt McIntosh, Dayna McLaughlin, Rachel Plunkett, Kate Thompson, and Elizabeth Weinberg

Other products Matt has created for past issues of the Earth is Blue magazine introduced readers to topics such as: sharks in your sanctuaries, the dynamics of surfing a wave, and the evolution of a shipwreck.

Designing a New Discovery Center

a team building an exhibit
A team works together to build the exhibits at Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

In 2019, Matt had an opportunity to design the new discovery center at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, working closely with Kate Thompson, director, and Dayna McLaughlin, national interpretation coordinator for the Education and Outreach Division. Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery is located in Kukui Grove Center in Līhu‘e on the island of Kaua‘i, and features original artwork created by Matt. He and a team of dedicated educators, interpreters, artists, and local stakeholders worked together to develop ideas such as the floor plan and concepts for interactive displays.

One thing Matt says he learned from this project was just how valuable and vital it was to work closely with local stakeholders in order to make sure Hawaiians’ culture, traditions, and their connection to the marine world are portrayed accurately. Getting the details right meant drawing on the knowledge of native Hawaiians and locals to make sure the design elements like Kapa (bark cloth) patterns and petroglyphs (ancient Hawaiian rock carvings) enhanced and contributed to the visual story. Matt's graphic design also utilizes several design elements from a powerful painting by native Hawaiian artist, Kahi Ching, that is a central piece in the facility and portrays the sacred Kumulipo (Hawaiian creation chant).

Matt said, “I saw how touched and happy people were that we told their story the way they hoped it would be told.” That was the moment he realized all of the hard work he and his coworkers put into this project was worth it, and would provide value to the community for years to come.

Creating a Lasting Impact

ceremony outside ocean discovery center
Visitors gather outside of the new Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery in Līhu‘e on the island of Kaua‘i for the grand opening in January 2020. Photo: Matt McIntosh/NOAA

Even during COVID-19, when many of your National Marine Sanctuary System’s visitor centers are closed to the public, Matt’s artwork is still educating and bringing smiles to young people’s faces. In September 2020, shark learning kits were distributed at Kukui Grove Center in Līhu‘e by the Division of Aquatic Resources, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, with Matt’s shark-themed artwork as inspiration. The kits included both hard-copy learning materials and web links, and complemented the mural-sized educational panel Matt created about sharks around the world, highlighting species found in the Pacific region near the Hawaiian Islands. Some lucky students even received poster-sized versions of Matt’s shark panel to take home.

illustration of a sharks
Sharks play important roles in national marine sanctuary and marine national monument habitats, from coral reefs to the deep sea. Art: Matt McIntosh | Produced by: Matt McIntosh, Dayna McLaughlin, Kate Thompson, and Elizabeth Weinberg

Matt recalls that to really capture the sharks in the most accurate way possible for this large panel, he watched a lot of videos of sharks swimming to try to get the detail of the anatomy and physiology right. He also worked closely with his coworkers to research facts about each of the sharks, and had to make tough decisions about which facts would make the final cut.

“I take that information and turn it into something visually appealing to give people a summary in digestible tidbits of information. The hope is that the images will draw people in and the information is concise and interesting enough for them to stay engaged and keep learning.”

You can see more of Matt’s work by visiting his website.

Rachel is the writer/editor for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries