Thursday, June 9, 2005
TeamOCEAN (Ocean Conservation Education Action Network), a grassroots, seasonal field program that puts knowledgeable naturalists out on the water in kayaks to greet and interact with fellow day kayakers, turns five years old this summer.
Dressed in life jackets and paddling bright yellow kayaks, TeamOCEAN members serve as representatives for the nebulous and often poorly understood Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Working in six-hour shifts in Elkhorn Slough and off Cannery Row, these environmental docents promote respectful wildlife viewing and protect marine mammals from disturbance.
According to program director Lisa Emanuelson, TeamOCEAN has seen a growth spurt in the last few years.
“In my time we’ve more than doubled our volunteer group,” she says. “With more volunteers you have more contact with people. We’re not just educating people about approaching the animals but also that the Sanctuary is a resource for everybody to use. General education about the Sanctuary is one of the important things that we do.”
Concerned about the disturbance of marine mammals, a group of local environmentalists and kayak shop owners founded the program in 2000 to educate visitors. Over the last five years, TeamOCEAN volunteers have talked to an estimated 1,700 people.
“That’s a huge boost for education and preventing disturbance,” Emanuelson says. “Most ocean kayakers are visitors to the area and come unaware or undereducated about the Sanctuary’s existence and the sensitive nature of its wildlife. We’re like floating information booths out there.”
And according to Emanuelson, kayaks make perfect educational platforms.
“The thing about kayaking is you can interact with people within the environment,” she says.
“When you go rent a kayak and are busy getting geared up and learning about all the new equipment, it’s easy to pass over the part where the operator says, ‘Don’t get too close to the otters.’”
While TeamOCEAN’s primary goal is to educate Sanctuary users, team members have been able to collect useful data on the frequency and nature of disturbances—when marine mammals such as sea otters, seals or sea lions raise their heads and make eye contact and/or flee.
In coming years, the TeamOCEAN program is looking to branch out and retain more of its volunteers.
“There is a need in other areas like Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz and for other audiences like scuba divers and other boaters,” Emanuelson says. “Right now, the Sanctuary’s going through its management plan review and wildlife disturbance is one of the action plans within that. Hopefully we’ll see an expanded commitment soon.”
Currently, the program loses more than half its volunteers from one year to the next.
“Many volunteer programs in the Monterey area compete for volunteers to staff programs,” Emanuelson says. “In order to attract and keep volunteers for more than one season, the program needs to offer more in-depth training and other volunteer opportunities in the kayaking program’s off season.”
The program also faces possible budget cuts to its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in the coming year. “Budget is always a concern,” Emanuelson says. “This is one of our top contact programs, though. Hopefully, folks higher up see how important it is. Besides, it really costs the Sanctuary very little if you break it down to a per contact.”
NOAA funds Emanuelson’s salary, along with the salaries for four other TeamOcean staff members. Beyond that, the program relies on donations.
Monterey Bay Kayaks donates kayak safety classes and allows the program to store its boats at their shop. Other key supporters include kayak manufacturers Kokotat and Perception, Eskape Kayaking, Kayak Connection, Peaceful Paddling, The Otter Project, and the Bay Watershed Education and Training (BWET) Grant Fund.