The Art of Playing Well: Celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month in Sanctuaries

By Elizabeth Moore

September 2017

There, off to the right! A dozen hands point starboard, where humpback whales, summering in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, are breaking the surface and sending up sprays of mist. On board the whalewatching boat, a hundred students from Lawrence, Massachusetts elementary schools, are enjoying a cruise on a bright July afternoon. For many of them, it is their first time seeing whales or even being on the ocean. Hopefully, these young people will visit again.

a large group of whale watchers on a boat waving to the camera
Students and families from Lawrence, Massachusetts wave as they embark on a trip to see whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: NOAA

Spanish-born American writer and philosopher George Santayana once wrote: “To the art of working well a civilized race would add the art of playing well.” We are a nation that takes our outdoor recreation seriously. Nearly half of us participated in an outside sport in 2015, with nearly 12 billion outdoor outings, and we spend an annual $650 billion every year in pursuit of fun, fitness, and togetherness. But we show distinct demographic differences in how we play. According to the Outdoor Foundation, the typical outdoor recreater tends to be male (54 percent); Caucasian (74 percent); older (34 percent are 45 or older); more educated (40 percent hold college degrees and an additional 22 percent have some college education); and from higher income tax brackets (46 percent make over $75,000 a year). Minority Americans, like many of the elementary school students from Lawrence’s Dominican community, lag far behind in enjoying our magnificent outdoor resources.

This is an old problem and it isn’t about enthusiasm. While Hispanic Americans are only eight percent of our outdoor recreational participants, they are among the most enthusiastic: they averaged by far the most annual outdoor outings per person in 2015. This is about older, deeper problems in our society.

Fifty-five years ago the congressionally-chartered Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission found that “Culture may limit participation through norms for behavior which originate in religion, color, legal restrictions, male-female role prescriptions, and other traditions or customs which provide a behavior pattern.” It comes down to various reasons, including cost, accessibility, social factors, and cultural values. Minority and/or lower income communities simply have not had the same access and opportunities to use recreational facilities and parks as other Americans. Despite this, a whopping 94 percent of Hispanic voters in western states say that federal lands, such as national parks and forests, are an essential part of those state economies.

students on a boat point toward a surfacing whale
Several elementary school students from point toward a surfacing humpback whale during a July whale watching trip. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

What’s being done to facilitate the increased participation of Hispanic and other minority Americans in ocean recreation? Outreach campaigns such as the Vamos A Pescar (Take Me Fishing) campaign have been successful, increasing the number of Hispanic Americans who go fishing for fun. Organizations such as Latino Outdoors and Hispanic Access Foundation are both active in campaigns, events, and field trips to enlighten and engage Hispanic Americans about the ocean.

The National Marine Sanctuary System is also undertaking a number of projects to help shift the culture of ocean conservation and recreation communities to be more reflective of our diverse American population. One project, MERITO (Multicultural Education for Resource Issues Threatening Oceans) is a marine conservation outreach effort for multicultural, primarily Hispanic audiences, pioneered in the early 2000s by Monterey Bay and Channel Islands national marine sanctuaries. Today, the MERITO Foundation operates the program, still focused on multicultural marine conservation and outreach.

Current sanctuary system efforts are focused on making the ocean more accessible to everyone in our coastal communities. Transportation scholarships for underserved schools allow Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to bring students to oceanside education programs. Similar field trips and in-classroom science programs conducted by Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary similarly engage Bay Area students. Future projects will include adding bilingual captioning to videos from across the sanctuary system and bringing after-school marine science programs to underserved communities in the San Francisco Bay area.

three students on a vessel face toward the ocean and pull up a net
Students pull up a plankton tow while on a MERITO field trip in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

On the East Coast, the humpback whales summering in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary migrated from the Caribbean area, including the Dominican Republic. Since 2006, the sanctuary has worked to establish an international sister sanctuary network to protect the same population of endangered humpback whales, at its northern feeding and nursery grounds off Massachusetts and its southern mating and calving grounds in the Caribbean waters. The network includes protected areas in the Dominican Republic, the French Antilles, and the Dutch Caribbean. The students enjoying the whale watching cruise may one day soon connect with students in the Dominican Republic as pen pals, to share stories about the whales they’ve all seen. It is only one small but powerful step toward making sure all Americans can have fun beside, on, in and under the water. Because our ocean is for everyone.

Elizabeth Moore is a senior policy advisor at the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.