Using art to highlight our connection to national marine sanctuaries

By Andrea Fisher

October 2018

This summer I snorkeled in a kelp forest, went tidepooling with marine researchers, had coffee with a recreational angler, learned from a Chumash weaver, and painted. While not your typical summer graduate school internship, these experiences were part of my quest to better understand – and share – the various ways individuals and groups connect with national marine sanctuaries. My internship specifically took me to the five national marine sanctuaries along the West Coast in Washington and California.

andrea fisher
Fisher explored Santa Cruz Island during her visit to Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Andrea Fisher

At each sanctuary I spoke with fishermen, sanctuary staff, visitors, indigenous people, sanctuary volunteers, and other community members to better understand how they feel and identify with the place. Afterwards, I produced an acrylic painting for each sanctuary to summarize and celebrate the species, activities, and emotions mentioned during the conversations. I decided to paint my findings, because art can showcase the ocean’s beauty, as well as capture complex stories, relationships, and emotions that are otherwise difficult to express. Below you can see the painting and read the highlights for each sanctuary.

Click each painting to see a larger image.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, Washington: A wild place, then and now

painting of olympic coast including sea stacks, orcas, and tide pools
Painting: Andrea Fisher

I first made my way to the northwestern coast of Washington state to visit Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary includes a vast offshore area, including deep-sea habitats, kelp forests, and an iconic, rugged coastline. Communities of the Makah Tribe, Quileute Tribe, Hoh Tribe, and Quinault Indian Nation have long-lived connections to certain species, natural items, and places of the region. Today, the communities simultaneously celebrate their ancestral ties to the ocean, manage their treaty-protected resources, and embrace modern fishing techniques.

My painting aims to capture the sanctuary as described by those I interviewed: "wild" and "remote." The coastline – with marine fog, silver-colored driftwood, and sea rock formations – was often described as a peaceful place, especially for visitors "escaping" their daily lives in major cities. My painting also showcases a mint-colored sea anemone and ochre sea stars for those who expressed their love for tidepooling.

The four traditional canoes represent the four native communities and allude to an annual event called the Tribal Canoe Journey, an event where indigenous communities from the United States and Canada undertake a long-distance paddle journey to celebrate community and tradition. I was fortunate to see some of the canoes leaving La Push, Washington, during my trip. Each tribal community is distinct and rich with culture, and therefore, my painting also refers to some of the past and current valued species as explained by various tribal representatives. A Makah representative described how halibut was dried on Tatoosh Island, and how orcas are considered protectors of the tribe. A Quileute representative explained how each year they welcome migrating gray whales with salmon and a ceremony.

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, California: A place of mystery and wonder

painting of cordell bank including blue whale, remotely operated vehicle, fish, and invertebrates
Painting: Andrea Fisher

Next I traveled to Point Reyes, California, to learn about Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This sanctuary differs from other sanctuaries along the West Coast as it is completely offshore and can be difficult to access due to unpredictable weather and ocean conditions. Luckily, advanced research technology and underwater photography has brought the sights of Cordell Bank to us.

My painting offers viewers a glimpse of the mysterious underwater world of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photos taken during research missions inspired my rendition of Cordell Bank, a rocky undersea feature that rises to 115 feet below the ocean surface. When viewing the research photos, I was struck by the tropical-looking, colorful corals, sponges, and anemones on the reefs. I also heard from a technical diver about his dive at Cordell Bank. He described the bank as the underwater Mount Everest.

In my painting you’ll see a red remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) that represents deep-sea exploration and other research happening in the sanctuary. I also wanted to showcase the productivity at the sanctuary, described to me by those I interviewed. People explained how the sanctuary attracts an array of seabirds, and how seeing thousands of juvenile rockfish or 30 blue whales at one time is possible.

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, California: Healthy ecosystems and communities

painting of greater farallones featuring farallon islands, a surfer, a humpback whale, a white shark, and a sea lion
Painting: Andrea Fisher

Next on my itinerary came Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, located just north of San Francisco. The sanctuary encompasses a large, complex system of bays, estuaries, marshes, nearshore reefs, rocky shores, and oceanic waters. It also surrounds the iconic Farallon Islands that can be seen from San Francisco on a clear day.

My painting of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary highlights how communities come together in this place. Upwelling, an ocean phenomenon that brings nutrient-rich waters to the surface, creates an abundant food source for a variety of species. The sanctuary attracts a multitude of whales and seabirds who feed in the region, and supports one of the world's most significant populations of white sharks.

Human communities enjoy the waters as well, through activities such as wildlife viewing at the Farallon Islands and surfing at places like Bolinas Beach. A couple of beachgoers explained the sanctuary as “clean,” while a high school surfer said time in the sanctuary made her feel happy, centered, and relaxed.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California: A place for all

painting of monterey bay featuring humpback whale, diver sea lions, sea otter, and kelp forest
Painting: Andrea Fisher

Next, I had the chance to explore Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary – the place I live and describe as my home. This sanctuary is adjacent to the Big Sur coastline, Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Half Moon Bay. Many describe the sanctuary as one of the best places on Earth to watch marine wildlife. Its diverse habitats – large sandy beaches, uninterrupted kelp forests, rocky shorelines – offer visitors endless recreational activities. The sanctuary also protects a variety of features like an inactive underwater volcano and a deep-sea canyon comparable in size to the Grand Canyon.

My painting showcases the diversity of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is rich with marine life, but also full of humans interacting with the natural systems. Human activity on land, whether agriculture in Salinas or day uses of Big Sur, define and affect the sanctuary.

I came across scuba and free divers, surfers, bay swimmers, kayakers, whale watchers, beachgoers, sailors, fishers, and people admiring marine life from shore. People I interviewed especially enjoyed watching sea otters (a crowd favorite), harbor seals, and sea lions. A diver described the sanctuary as “one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen,” and others explained the place as "home," "my sanctuary," and "life."

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, California: A magical place, focused on community

painting of a channel islands kelp forest featuring fish, diver, and invertebrates
Painting: Andrea Fisher

For my final stop, I headed south to visit Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is just off the coast of Santa Barbara and Ventura and surrounds the five Northern Channel Islands: San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Anacapa, and Santa Barbara. The islands are surrounded by majestic coastal vistas, kelp beds, and diverse shoreline features. The islands and surrounding productive marine area have been, and continue to be, special to the Native American Chumash community.

My painting aims to capture the sanctuary as described by those I interviewed: "magical" and "a place that celebrates community." The Chumash community maintain their connection to the Channel Islands in various ways, such as the annual tomol (traditional canoe) crossing from the mainland to Santa Cruz Island, Limuw. While various species are valued by the Chumash, a Chumash weaver identified abalone as especially important.

The painting also alludes to stories I heard about children snorkeling above a bat ray and scuba divers encountering seals, sheephead fish, bright orange Garibaldi fish, and giant sea bass in the kelp forests. The boats in the painting represent the active recreational angling and commercial fishing communities, as well as the boats that take visitors to the sanctuary and islands.

Painting a picture of our shared connection

My summer journey confirmed that national marine sanctuaries are valued by various individuals and groups for different reasons. The diverse accounts of how people connect to their national marine sanctuary, when woven together, create a dynamic story, a story that reflects how we collectively think of and value a place. My paintings are a platform for visualizing these stories. I hope they provide you a new look at national marine sanctuaries along the West Coast, and inspire you to consider your connection to a special ocean place.

Andrea Fisher is an intern for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries West Coast Regional Office and MPA Center. She is a graduate student at Middlebury Institute of International Studies focusing on ocean and coastal resource management.