Sanctuary Staff Feature: Hélène Scalliet

A connection and a calling

By Hélène Scalliet

October 2017

I grew up in Belgium, and while I spent all the time I was allowed playing near the water, I wanted to be a writer. My career path took a different turn with a trip to Spain when I was 16, where I scuba dived for the first time. I was awestruck by this magical, otherworldly environment just below the surface, and came back determined to make the ocean my life’s purpose. I found a scuba club in Brussels, and signed up for diving classes in a pool starting that fall, which were arguably much less exciting than a vacation in Spain!

kayaker in white water
Scalliet frequently kayaks for exercise and relaxation after a hard day at the office. Photo: Michael D. Sawyer

But I was hooked nonetheless, dreaming of future trips to the Marquesas or Belize. Before getting the certification at the end of that year of training, I had to pass a thorough medical exam. Shockingly, given my young age and general good health, the exams showed that my brain produced some wonky waves. While the doctors could not pinpoint the cause or effect and said it was likely harmless, none were willing to sign the release form for my scuba certification. My diving career was cut short early on, but my passion for the ocean and all its big and small creatures remained.

This passion brought me to California after I finished secondary studies in Belgium. I spent my first year learning English and focusing on getting accepted to a university with a reputable marine biology program. It didn’t hurt that I got to live near the beautiful Pacific Ocean for several years!

young girl playing on beach
Scalliet’s connection to the ocean began early as she frequently played by the water in Belgium. Photo: Simone Spanoghe

As an undergrad at University of California, Santa Barbara, I worked in a lab at the Marine Science Center. While I spent most of my time washing bottles and analyzing chlorophyll samples, I was able to participate in our monthly day-long cruises, as well as a few week-long cruises, for the Long Term Ecological Research Project in the Santa Barbara Channel.

But as much as I loved being on the water, I didn’t find within myself the passion to focus on one narrow topic, and the meticulous attention to detail in scientific protocols as well as the need to spend a lot of time writing grant proposals did not appeal to me at all. After graduating I had to honestly admit that science wasn’t where I belonged.

I was eager to tackle conservation problems with people of different backgrounds, which led me to pursuing a master’s at the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, with an emphasis on ocean and coastal resources management. I was able to engage Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary as a client for my group project, which was the equivalent to a master’s thesis. Getting to know the staff at the sanctuary had a profound impact on me. Shattering some of my misconceptions about the federal government, these people were passionate, hard working, excellent in interdisciplinary problem-solving, and just fun to be around. I wanted to be one of them!

After graduating in 2004, I was lucky to find a position with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had never been to Maryland, nor did I feel particularly inclined to leave my beloved West Coast after a decade of living there as an expat, but the lure of working for the National Marine Sanctuary System was irresistible. In all these years, I have found that the blend of technical and interpersonal work required in policy and planning for marine conservation is a perfect fit for me.

three people with an award
In 2015, Scalliet was selected as a 2015 National Ocean Service Team Member of the Year. Photo: NOAA

Part of what defines me is that I like to be outside more than inside. While I miss the daily connection to the ocean, I’ve developed a deep appreciation of rivers through the sport of whitewater kayaking. I met my husband on the Potomac River, where I often go paddle for exercise and relaxation after a hard day at the office. We got engaged in the Grand Canyon during a month-long kayak descent of the Colorado River, and we took our entire wedding party rafting down a Pennsylvania river in 2010. In 2013, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes after an extended river wilderness trip. While living with any disability has its challenges, my love of the outdoors has given me the perseverance to actively manage this life-threatening condition so that I can continue to pursue my passions, which include both playing outside and working hard at the office.

My chosen career path has limited outdoor opportunities, but I have found a way to balance that with spending every weekend exploring new or favorite rivers or trails. Connecting with nature fills me with renewed energy to work hard at protecting the wonderful resources of our national marine sanctuaries, all the way from my cubicle in Silver Spring.

Hélène Scalliet is a program specialist in the Police and Planning Division of NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.