by Dannah Rosales, Student
Summers in Santa Cruz are an exciting and busy time of the year for this little beach town, where visitors from all over California flock to the renowned Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Just across the San Lorenzo River east of the boardwalk is Seabright Beach, another popular tourist destination. While there aren’t roller coasters or fried Oreos on this side of the river, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is just as busy. It sits on East Cliff Drive, and over the summer, visitors are seen hauling their coolers and beach towels up and down this oceanside street. Amongst this blur of weekend beach-goers, a team of museum volunteers can be spotted somewhere along this stretch of the cliff.
In 2014, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History initiated an outdoor educational program called “On the Spot.” Sponsored by the California Coastal Conservancy, the purpose of the program was to engage visitors in the natural history of the area and to encourage stewardship of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. From Santa Cruz locals to European tourists, there is a learning experience for everyone.
Museum volunteers organized stations in various locations along East Cliff Drive. The stations typically included a spotting scope , field guides, and artifacts like whale baleen or a sea cow bone. These materials were used as teaching tools and as a way to attract visitors. Several people were excited about the opportunity to use a spotting scope or binoculars. Others had never seen whale baleen before and were fascinated that such large creatures can eat such tiny organisms like krill.
One goal of the program was to encourage visitors to take care of the beaches and waters that they enjoy so much. By pointing out a sea lion a few dozen meters from shore or a pelican diving for lunch, volunteers hoped that this interaction would help visitors realize that they share the ocean with these animals. With a target audience of tourists who may not be environmentally aware of their actions, volunteers took on the challenge of engaging them through these sightings and conversations.
Sea otters are a very common sighting in the Monterey Bay, thanks to years of conservation efforts. With kelp beds right off Seabright Beach, sea otters seemed to be the main attraction. During one sighting, a sea otter was spotted chewing on a bright red piece of plastic that looked like a part of a beach toy. Plastic pollution is a current issue that has garnered a lot of attention in recently, especially with California’s plastic bag ban. While troubling to witness, volunteers took this opportunity to discuss the importance of keeping beaches clean and disposing waste properly.
Programs like “On the Spot” allowed volunteers to share their knowledge and excitement over wildlife sightings and current local events with visitors who may have never even seen the Pacific Ocean. The program made large strides in engaging both locals and tourists on environmental issues relevant to the area, reaching more than 1,000 people over the course of three months. The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History plans to continue the program during the summer of 2015. “On the Spot” proved that a light-hearted conversation and shared excitement over a pod of dolphins can be a simple step forward in encouraging people to be more environmentally conscious.