Volunteers, the lifeblood of the aquarium, slowly return after long shutdown 

Over the past year, volunteers at the Aquarium of the Pacific shifted from diving into fish tanks and working in touch labs to sewing masks for essential workers, creating coloring books for elementary school children stuck at home and trash cleanups.

During a normal summer, over 1,200 volunteers contribute to the success of the Aquarium of the Pacific.

But during the pandemic, the number shrunk down to only 350 at its lowest point.

The remaining volunteers quickly shifted to assess the community’s needs during that time, until they could safely return to the aquarium.

“It’s just kind of part of our fabric that, of course, it was immediate to just turn around and say well, ‘We have some fabric, how can we make this better?’” said Cassandra Davis, volunteer program manager at the aquarium.

That number has slowly regrown to close to its original numbers, with 800 to 900 volunteers currently involved as restrictions have eased and the aquarium has fully reopened.

Barbara Anders has been volunteering at the aquarium since its opening in 1998, which coincided with her retirement date.

“I remember thinking, ‘What the hell have I gotten into?’ But it didn’t take me long to settle in and think, ‘Wow this is a lot of fun,’” she said.

For Anders, the pandemic was no reason to stop volunteering, especially considering the strict regulations the aquarium followed.

“I felt very comfortable going there, in fact, it was nice to get out of the house,” said the former sixth-grade teacher.

Anders has worked in the education department throughout her time at the aquarium, but the roles that volunteers can fill are vast.

At the aquarium, there is a volunteer program for anyone with nearly any interest or skill set: volunteers contribute to the social media feed and website with photography, work behind the scenes in the animal husbandry department, or even gather plankton, for instance.

Davis has worked in many of these roles herself, beginning as a volunteer back in 2011, in which she tried her hand at exhibit interpreting, special events, and community science, just to name a few.

“Our volunteers have a very strong sense of connecting to others. It is very much part of our fabric that we need everybody in order to help our ocean, in order to help our oceans’ habitats, and there’s no one way to volunteer,” Davis said.

An integral part of the aquarium’s mission is its youth outreach; roughly 20% of the aquarium’s volunteers are under the age of 18.

“I think that more and more teens are getting recognized for their involvement,” said Davis. “I think that there’s a lot of passion in teens in general, and it’s been really wonderful to see that getting a bigger spotlight.”

While yard signs became the pandemic-appropriate way to celebrate birthdays and graduations, teens created a yard sign initiative, taking the opportunity to introduce their neighbors to a new animal or connection to the Pacific Ocean.

Teens also continued their Teen Science Cafe and Teen Science Council programs throughout the pandemic (although they switched the meetings to virtual), focusing on science communication, education and conservation, while providing information and resources to their peers.

Now that coronavirus restrictions have lifted, Davis is most excited for the return of floor volunteers, who interact with guests, emphasizing the importance of having volunteers of all ages to fill this role.

Volunteers as young as 9 can participate, as part of the family volunteer program.

For an aquarium that welcomes guests of all ages and backgrounds, it is important to include diverse volunteers as well, according to Davis.

“To see two 9-year-olds talking about sharks, and their different teeth and adaptations … they can talk to each other in a way that peers can talk to one another, and that’s different from somebody who’s older, giving a lecture,” she said.

People from all walks of life volunteer at the aquarium, said Davis, from lawyers and flight attendants, to students to scientists. “They all get to learn together and make discoveries together. And I think it’s wonderful.”

Davis hopes that many of the pandemic-era initiatives such as a watershed-cleanup trash program remain even as things go back to “normal,” but the aquarium will also see a return of more of its in-person opportunities.

In-person interaction is a key part of making the aquarium such a welcoming place, said Anders, who has seen the aquarium develop from scratch.

Anders, who has countless stories of memorable guest interactions from over the years, recalled a young man in a wheelchair who visited the aquarium for what would probably be his last birthday. He was very sick, and he wanted to see the ocean.

Anders gave him a private tour, then took him to the Shark Lagoon where the crew there helped him touch a shark.

“And they had everybody sing happy birthday, and this guy told me that is the best birthday he ever had,” said Anders.

“That one really stood out because it really shows the impact of what volunteers can do, the impact they have,” she said.

According to Davis, it is these connections that are built through volunteering that make the aquarium such a special place, along with the unique stories that each guest and volunteer like Anders brings to the aquarium.

“Anybody who wants to participate in ocean conservation or education has a home here,” she said.

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