My Journey with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries

By Brijonnay Madrigal

September 2021

Over 30 years ago, my father immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico seeking a better life. He began as a migrant worker, and was later granted amnesty in 1986. He is one of the hardest workers I have ever met. He never went to college, but understands the importance of education. I was the first person in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree, and subsequently will be the first in my family to earn a doctoral degree. As I have continued in higher education, I found that among my peers and colleagues there are less and less people of color and people that look like me. Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields and the percentage of Hispanic women in higher education is extremely low.

Brijonnay standing in shallow water with her mask and snorkel on
A teenage Brijonnay preparing to snorkel in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and National Park as part of her Ocean for Life experience. Photo: Claire Fackler/NOAA

I seek to overcome the statistics and strive to achieve my goal of earning a PhD as a Mexican American woman in marine science. I have been very fortunate to work with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries since high school, and this government organization has provided me with incredible opportunities to thrive, not only as a scientist but as an educator and steward of the ocean.

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

When I was a junior in high school, I was selected to participate in the Ocean for Life program, an ocean science and cultural exchange program. I joined students from the Middle East and across the U.S. in Santa Barbara, California. It was an incredible experience because as an aspiring marine biologist, I was excited to learn about the work of the National Marine Sanctuary System. We explored Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary through hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking and gained an appreciation for these underwater parks.

This was a special experience for me because it was my first time being in a national marine sanctuary. I connected with students from diverse backgrounds, learned about different cultures and gained an appreciation for the local Chumash community of the Channel Islands area. We learned how to be ocean advocates and the importance of ocean conservation while also cultivating an understanding of other cultures. This field program really ignited my passion for marine science and solidified my desire to commit my life to the ocean. After high school, I moved to Hawaiʽi for college, excited to study marine biology as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaiʽi at Mānoa.

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

A woman standing at a table helping children color cutouts of marine animals
Conducting education and outreach for NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was one of the roles that Brijonnay assisted with during her internship. Photo courtesy of Brijonnay Madrigal.
people looking out at the water through binoculars
As part of the Sanctuary Ocean Count team, Brijonnay was able to enjoy some whale watching along the coast of Oʽahu herself. Photo courtesy of Brijonnay Madrigal.

As an undergraduate, I became involved with NOAA’s Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. I was excited to work with the humpback whale sanctuary because it was the sanctuary right in my backyard! I was an intern for the Sanctuary Ocean Count, a citizen science project where volunteers conduct humpback whale surveys from land and collect data on sightings (number of individuals) and surface-active behaviors. This project engages the community in monitoring this vital migratory species and promotes awareness of humpback whales in Hawaiʽi. My role was to organize volunteers, schedule volunteers for sites across the islands, and conduct site visits on Ocean Count days.

I also was involved in education and outreach and went to various events on the island of Oʽahu to educate the public on humpback whales and the important role the sanctuary plays in the conservation of this species. I enjoyed not only engaging with the volunteers but also doing a little whale watching, too, as I am always amazed by their incredible breaching behavior.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

After graduating from the University of Hawaiʽi at Mānoa with a bachelor of science in marine biology, I knew I wanted to continue pursuing higher education. In the heart of Monterey Bay, California is a tiny town called Moss Landing—if you blinked you would miss it. I attended Moss Landing Marine Laboratories where I was a master’s student in the Vertebrate Ecology Laboratory. I am passionate about marine science, so when the opportunity came up to work for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, in the education and outreach realm, I jumped at the chance! I enjoy the research side of science, but education and outreach has always been my other passion.

The exploration center is a visitor center off the Santa Cruz wharf almost entirely run by volunteers, docents, and a small staff, which educates the public about Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. I started working as a program assistant and eventually became the volunteer coordinator. I managed over 60 volunteers at the exploration center and was not only in charge of training docents on how to educate the public about the sanctuary, but also how to engage visitors in using our interactive exhibits. I led education programs, including field trips that took us to the beach, hands-on activities in the classroom, and led interactions with the exhibits at the center.

Brijonnay Madrigal
Brijonnay Madrigal was the volunteer coordinator for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center in Santa Cruz, CA during her graduate studies at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories. Photo courtesy of Brijonnay Madrigal.
a person giving a presentation in an auditorium
Introducing students to NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary during their field trip, was a part of Brijonnay’s duties. Photo courtesy of Brjonnay Madrigal.

I loved that my job was hands-on, and I got to work with a broad variety of people from kindergarteners to retired docents. I loved seeing the enthusiasm of the docents when they came in ready for their shift and their excitement when they shared their knowledge of the sanctuary with visitors. Volunteers are truly vital to the success of national marine sanctuary education and outreach and they play an important role in increasing public knowledge and awareness of America’s underwater treasures. I really enjoyed working with sanctuary volunteers, so after nearly three years, I was sad to leave the exploration center, but a new opportunity arose that I couldn’t pass up.

Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program

After earning my master’s degree, I applied to the Dr. Nancy Foster Scholarship Program offered by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. This program funds graduate students conducting marine research within the sanctuary system. I was ecstatic when I received the call—I had gotten the scholarship! This scholarship allowed me to fulfill my lifelong dream of attaining a PhD. I am currently a second year PhD student at the University of Hawaiʽi at Mānoa in the Marine Mammal Research Program. My lab is located on Coconut Island (a.k.a. Gilligan’s Island) at the Hawaiʽi Institute of Marine Biology. Sometimes I have to pinch myself because it is not every day you get to take a boat to work!

an island in the middle of a bay with blue water surrounded by a tall mountainous landscape
An aerial view of the Hawai`i Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island in Kaneohe Bay off O`ahu. Photo: Doug Peebles
pilot whales
Short-finned pilot whales off the island of Lānaʽi. Photo: Brijonnay Madrigal, NMFS Permit No. 20605

I am collaborating with the sanctuary system’s SanctSound acoustic monitoring project, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center. For my research, I am using passive acoustic monitoring to understand the occurrence and distribution of two Hawaiian resident toothed whale species; false killer whales and short-finned pilot whales, inside and outside the sanctuary and in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. I am also interested in measuring the overall soundscape and quantifying anthropogenic (human made) noise, including shipping and naval sonar. Ultimately, I am interested in understanding how anthropogenic noise may affect false killer whale and pilot whale acoustic behavior. Although I have just completed my first year of my PhD, I am excited to see how the results from my work may influence management and impact conservation efforts in Hawaiʽi.

Brijonnay stands on the bow of a research vessel
Dr. Nancy Foster Scholar, Brijonnay Madrigal, on a research boat conducting marine mammal surveys with MMRP collaborator, Cascadia Research Collective. Photo: Robin Baird/Cascadia Research Collective

Thankful for NOAA Opportunities

During my time at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, on my way to the lab every morning, I would pass by migrant workers picking in the fields, fields where my father and grandfather once worked, and I was always reminded that behind every humble beginning is a big dream. I am proud of my heritage, and I strive to make my father proud as I work towards achieving my goals. Over the last 10 years, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has provided me with invaluable opportunities and has enabled me to pursue my dream of becoming a marine biologist. Without the support of this government organization, I would not be in the position I am today. Through my story, I hope to inspire Hispanic youth to pursue science and encourage more Latino involvement in STEM. I strive to increase diversity and inclusivity in my field, and I hope that one day we will see more Hispanic representation in marine science.