Stories from the Blue: Beach Watch

As told by Beach Watch manager Kirsten Lindquist

For more than 20 years, volunteers with Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary's Beach Watch program have been surveying California coastal beaches. These volunteers walk the beaches of Greater Farallones and northern Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries each month to collect data on live and dead species of birds and marine mammals, as well as on human activities. Read on for Beach Watch manager Kirsten Lindquist's Story from the Blue to learn what makes Beach Watch such a special program.

I graduated from school back in 2000, and spent 11 or 12 years doing remote field work. I had a lot of experience working with the same species that we have here in the San Francisco area, only in the places where they breed, like Alaska and Chile, and I was ready to set down roots. So, six years ago I came to Beach Watch because I have a skill set that is applicable to teaching people about the species that are found here. I never anticipated what I was getting into: walking in the door and suddenly working with a team of over 100 Beach Watch volunteers.

We currently have about 140 volunteers, and almost every one of them has been with the program more than five years. In fact, we have 12 who have been with the program almost 25 years. The volunteer retention rate for this program is phenomenal.

These volunteers are really life-long learners, and we are satisfying their curiosity about our wildlife in exchange for all of their time and energy in collecting data along the beach. We foster a sense of community by providing an opportunity for a group of really interesting people to come together and learn together, and together they provide an incredible data set on our stretch of coast that can start to speak to long-term biological and ecosystem trends.

"In many ways, we provide the eyes and ears on the beaches. The first step toward understanding the world begins for us on the beach. And there is nothing more exciting or challenging than what we do. Without solid, honest information it is impossible for communities to make long and short-term decisions. We are the army of citizen scientists who provide data and stand up for the Earth so that our children will have a better world than we did."

-- Ed Ryken, Beach Watch volunteer since 2008

We hold trainings for new volunteers every couple of years, and usually around 50 people apply who really want to be in the class. Usually our training classes are filled to capacity, at 25 spots. Those people go through an intensive process that equals about an 80-hour training and a mentorship period before they're actively collecting data. Once they've gone through the training they are assigned to a beach, where they conduct a survey one time a month. These people become the experts on that beach. They collect wildlife data about the birds and mammals that are using that stretch of coast, as well as record dead wildlife. They also monitor human uses and any oil deposition they may find on that beach. Those data then can be used in any number of ways.

We've had a number of oil spills along this coast that Beach Watch has recorded, and we've documented many other sanctuary management concerns. We also work with several different land managers with overlapping jurisdiction along this coast: two national parks and a number of state, county, and regional parks. All of those groups have access to Beach Watch data, and use them for their management purposes. So our volunteers get a lot of satisfaction from seeing how their data are used in so many different ways.

"You really feel like you're making a contribution to something much bigger than yourself, but your focus is on your beach, so it doesn't feel overwhelming. We are all on this planet together, and Beach Watch is a small part of what it will take to keep it healthy."

-- Anne Kelley, Beach Watch volunteer since 2012

In fall 2014, we had hosted two new training classes. Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary expanded northward in 2015, but just prior to that the Greater Farallones Association had already brought Beach Watch up the coast to that area. So we had added 40 new recruits  to the project to monitor the newly extended area, and they were super excited to get out on the beach. The day that our second training session ended, we got a phone call from one of our new volunteers saying, 'there are 180 dead Cassin's auklets on my beach." This was before their surveys had actually started, but it was basically the very first time these 40 new Beach Watch volunteers were to strike out onto the beach, prepared for action. As it turned out, this occurred in the middle of the largest Cassin's auklet die-off that's ever been documented on the West Coast of North America.

It was a trial-by-fire initiation. We found ourselves literally wading through a massive number of dead birds, saying, 'this isn't characteristic, this isn't normal -- believe me! Oh please don't be scared off." Ultimately, not a single person quit -- not that they weren't fazed by it, because it was an incredible sight and fairly disturbing. However, they were prepared for it, and they were game. They knew that the data they were collecting reflected the leading edge of the storm. These new Beach Watch surveyors were collecting very timely and pertinent information that now, two years later, we are contributing to four manuscripts that will go out for peer review in 2017. Also, we've had 15 different conference presentations over the last couple of years on that die-off. Academics from all over the country have asked us for those data. So these poor volunteers, who I was so terrified would all bail, just toughed it out and were absolutely incredible about starting their Beach Watch "careers" at this disturbing but amazing time -- they could see just how important the Beach Watch data they gathered were.

It's one thing when we call out the troops for some unusual event like an oil spill or a die-off. But it's another thing altogether to be out there on the beach every month, over a period of several years, conducting regular, systematic surveys. Those are really the data that are so interesting and unique, because they provide us with a baseline of the normal conditions along our coast. We could then state with confidence and accuracy that the fall of 2014 was exceptional, because we had data reaching back 24 years that told us this was a huge and important event. We could prove it. But, to just go out during an event and say, "Wow, a lot of birds died!" -- well, what does that really mean without this historical baseline data? That is what is so important about what our Beach Watch volunteers do: they go out and collect the "zero" or baseline, data. Those data show what things are like here normally, so that we can then call out what is unusual, should an event occur in the future.

"I grew up on beaches and am intrigued with intertidal ecosystems and their inhabitants. I've seen many changes in the populations of intertidal animals and some seabirds over just the last 5-10 years and the kind of information obtained from this kind of monitoring contributes to the knowledge base needed for effective protections. On a personal level, I like being able to contribute to something important and it's such a tremendous learning experience."

-- Hollis Bewley, Beach Watch volunteer since 2014

We look for people who are really excited to learn, have a passion for wildlife, and who also have an aptitude for filling out forms -- as tedious as that is. We don't need someone to come to us and say, "I already know all the birds and mammals out there, I know the scientific method, I know all of these things." Instead, we welcome people who are hungry to learn even more about our wildlife and ecosystem, and to learn more about Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary's science and specific data collection methods. And ultimately, they understand how all of this ties into our conservation strategies. Beach Watchers see clearly that they play a significant role in the science and education community that supports this vital work.

two people on the beach looking through binoculars

Learn more about Beach Watch on the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary website.

Video: David J. Ruck/NOAA; photo: NOAA