Aquarium volunteers await reopening

The Monterey Bay Aquarium holds a special place in many hearts.

“Graceful, magical, mesmerizing!” 

This is how long-time volunteer Joanne Garden described the jellyfish at the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA). Garden is not alone in her awe of the institution, or the flora and fauna that call it home. Volunteers describe the aquarium the way a young child describes Disneyland: it’s a magical, inspiring place where they feel at home.

Garden started as a volunteer in May 1984 before the Aquarium opened in October of that year. She recalled the dive program starting small, but the aquarium quickly realizing the potential of divers to connect with visitors. 

The aquarium started having volunteers like Garden narrate feeding times using a special mask equipped with a microphone. 

“(I) wonder how many visitors remember placing their hand against the window of that tank with a diver’s hand on the inside? That was fun, when it happened,” recalled Garden. 

The captain of the Tuesday A dive team Alice Bourget remembers seeing a feeding show the first time she visited MBA. “I was a young diver (back then) … I applied to be a volunteer diver within days.” 

Some of MBA’s most beloved attractions include the sea otter and penguin habitats, jellyfish room and the towering kelp forest. Bourget and Garden helped maintain the kelp plants, which needed constant maintenance. They grow an average of about four inches a day and require weekly underwater gardening by scuba divers who untangle and trim the fast-growing plants, according to the aquarium’s website.

The aquarium utilizes passionate volunteers in many areas, not just for tank diving. 

“Volunteers are kind of like the ambassadors for the aquarium,” said volunteer Laurie Dixon, who also works at California State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) as a lead analyst in budget and planning. “We’re the ones that help interpret the exhibits.” 

Dixon was a member at the aquarium before she became a volunteer. She first fell in love with the aquarium when she moved to California and her friends who volunteered convinced her to conduct a volunteer interview to join them. She was accepted into the program and said, “It’s really become a happy place for me.” 

Volunteers outnumber paid staff by over 2 to 1 with about 1,200 total volunteers, according to the aquarium website. 

“Volunteers are involved in nearly every nook and cranny,” said Garden. “It is a symbiotic relationship.” 

While most volunteers are not currently able to be at the aquarium in person, they remain connected to the community which is “a family type culture,” according to Dixon. 

Few volunteers are allowed back onto the MBA premises to help maintain exhibits. But with plenty volunteers stay involved virtually, eagerly awaiting the aquariums reopening. MBA Director of Volunteer Engagement Laraine Lomax explained guide or docent volunteers continue to attend the virtual classes or enrichment sessions via Zoom. Classes contribute to “maintaining a sense of community during the closure,” she said. 

The volunteers at the aquarium are not only passionate about what they do, but they are also passionate about the community they create and the aquarium family. 

Former MBA employee Drew Morgan stepped down to become a volunteer diver, switching to a volunteer to work as the diving safety officer of his alma mater, CSUMB. He enjoys the familiarity the volunteer cohort brings him.

The best part of the aquarium is “the dive operations staff, they are still some of my best friends and [I] collaborate with them often both personally and professionally,” he said. “The vibe is very family-like … birthday cards are always remembered, treats (are) baked and packed up for enjoying during pre-shift meetings and gathering outside of the Aquarium (is common.)”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is not only unique because of its large and eager volunteer base. 

“The location largely drives the uniqueness of the place,” said Morgan. It is “a regional aquarium, meaning it showcases the habitats and ecosystems found just off its back deck.” 

According to the aquarium website, about 1.8 million visitors pass through its doors each year. Morgan noted that “guests com[ing] in droves … to see the brown, slimy giant kelp on exhibit is quite amazing.” 

Local students at CSUMB share Morgan’s enthusiasm for the opportunity to experience the aquarium. “There are CSUMB students working and volunteering in almost every department at the aquarium,” he said. 

He added that many students come to CSUMB because of its location near the aquarium. “It is a place that many of our students visited as a child and it made such a large impact on them that they decided to be a part of it in their intellectual pursuits.”

Many children see ocean life for the very first time when visiting MBA. Volunteer Dixon said young visitors are big components of making MBA a joyful place. She enjoys “the enthusiasm when a kid sees the sheephead swim by,” and being able to share her knowledge with them. 

Dixon was at the aquarium right before it shut down. She said losing weekly trips to MBA has been difficult and she misses seeing the animals and her friends.

“[The aquarium] is a magnet to people near and far to want to come experience the display and beauty and drink in the knowledge of these many beauties from the aquatic world,” Dixon said.

The aquarium also supports the local community economically, providing jobs and revenue for tourism. There have been reports of $55 million in revenue loss since the shutdown, according to the KION news station  in Monterey County. 

Bourget is currently volunteering in the dive tanks. She said some volunteers who take care of the exhibits and animals have returned after a break, while others are still waiting to come back. The aquarium has not set a date for when all volunteers can return nor when it will reopen. 

Plans to reopen rely on county guidelines and steps for reopening will include safety procedures like a directed path through the aquarium in smaller groups instead of allowing guests to roam. 

“In time, there is great hope for a full recovery back to the glory and excited business of having crowds of excited visitors filling the areas inside this incredible institution of discovery of our world’s oceans,” said Garden. 

While the near future of the aquarium reopening is uncertain, its volunteers look positively to the impact it will continue to make when it does. 

“It is my hope the aquarium can positively influence counties, states, our country and other nations to pay much needed attention to environmental issues and caring for our planet and oceans,” said Garden. 

Morgan sees an increased collaboration between the aquarium and CSUMB in the future and likeliness guests will help to “spread the ocean stoke that is so strong here along the Monterey Bay.” 

“The aquarium has shown that a facility like an aquarium can also be a policy influencer, conservation champion, research facility and more,” said Morgan. “It is so much more than an aquarium.”

CSUMB students or community members that are inspired to join these passionate volunteers once it is safe to do so can go to https://www.montereybayaquarium.org/join-give/become-a-volunteer for more information about the volunteer program.

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