<b>By Rebecca Bailey SCBJ Freelance Writer</b>
On a sunny day last summer, six people garbed in vests with pockets full of field guides, magnifying glasses and binoculars gathered mid-morning on the beach at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park. They were volunteer naturalists from the Beach Watchers program of Washington State University Extension.
Volunteering for an organization that matches your interest is fast becoming a popular pastime.
According to a survey conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Service, 61.8 million Americans or 26.4 percent of the adult population contributed eight billion hours of volunteer service in 2008.
The Beach Watchers volunteer program is a great local example. Chrys Bertolotto, WSU Extension coordinator for the program, said more than 52 Beach Watchers are actively volunteering in Snohomish County. Last year the program tracked 39,000 volunteer hours. That is up from 11,000 hours logged when the program started in 2006. Regionally, Beach Watchers cover eight counties in the Puget Sound region with 750 volunteers, she said.
Volunteering just plain feels good. “This is fun. I have many pictures of Beach Watchers out there doing things and always with a smile. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach in the summer months and do something meaningful,” Bertolotto said.
At Mukilteo Lighthouse Park, volunteers were energized by the low-tide day, which often reveals intertidal life such crabs, snails, sea stars, limpets, and other invertebrates. Kids enthusiastically gathered around the Beach Watchers curious about the marine animals that they were seeing. The naturalists were sharing interesting facts and teaching kids how to explore the beach without harming the critters. They set up a tank where kids could gently touch the marine animals and learn more about them.
It’s common to find these volunteers during the summer in Snohomish County at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and Kayak Point State Park on low-tide days. However, the winter season switches things around and low-tide days become low-tide starlight beach walks. Beach Watchers organized three after-dark beach walks at Mukilteo, Edmonds and Kayak Point beaches during the last two months. They guided hundreds of families and kids as they roamed the shorelines with headlamps and flashlights searching for marine critters.
“Beach Watchers are involved in so many different areas,” Bertolotto said.
The choice of volunteer opportunities attracts many people to the Beach Watchers program. Overall, the volunteers become involved in research, education and stewardship of the Puget Sound. They work with schools to provide youth education in classrooms and on local beaches. Volunteers read beach-themed books to preschoolers at local libraries, share useful information with crabbers, help monitor the quality of our county beaches by collecting weekly water samples, protect stranded marine mammals, educate new shoreline residents, and get involved in many other activities that promote the health of Puget Sound.
“This has gotten me into a whole new motivating area, said Barbara Keithly, who is a Beach Watcher and has an art background. She helps with classroom presentations, school field trips and the library-reading program. “I love watching children discover and interacting with them,” she said. Keithly has lived near the beach for many years. “For me it’s fun to understand that environment better. I will never look at a beach the way I used to.”
“People volunteer in a big way,” Bertolotto said.
The volunteer training is offered annually, providing 100 hours of university-caliber training from approximately 40 local experts about Puget Sound ecology and current issues affecting the health of Puget Sound. Topics include, among many, marine invertebrates, coastal processes, invasive species, water quality, intertidal ecology, and watershed issues. In return, trainees give back 100 hours over a two-year period.
For those who want to volunteer, but can’t commit to the 100 hours, one-day trainings for specific projects are offered. In return, these volunteers commit to giving back eight hours of volunteer time during the summer.
The Beach Watcher program often crosses county lines, working collaboratively with other organizations to improve the Puget Sound. Any volunteer hours logged with these other agencies count, too.
Volunteers are as diverse as the program’s opportunities for involvement. Many join the program because they are passionate about the Puget Sound and know its health is important to the quality of life in Snohomish County. Some are people with flexible work-hours. Others are parents of young children. You’ll find retirees, couples and teenagers around the table. Diverse though they may be, they all share three common traits, said Bertolotto. They have a true desire to learn, to give back to their community, and to give a significant amount of time.
“The program isn’t just about learning, it’s about giving back,” she said.
Carol Forsberg leads the Beach Watcher library-reading program. When asked why she volunteers, she said, “It’s for the pure joy of working with young children and increasing their interest in the beach.”
Bertolotto is just as passionate about the Puget Sound as the volunteers she coordinates. She was attracted to the job five years ago because of the Beach Watchers program reputation in Island County, which was the original program that started in 1989. “I think Beach Watchers is very effective. You don’t do this kind of work unless you’re passionate about cleaning up the Puget Sound,” she said.
This spring, Bertolotto is offering one-day training in a variety of areas for people who would like to volunteer for the Beach Watchers program this summer. The return commitment is to give eight hours of volunteer time by the end of the summer. The one-day trainings will cover water quality monitoring and intertidal monitoring on beaches at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and Kayak Point State Park.
Call Chrys Bertolotto for more information at 425-357-6020, email Chrys@wsu.edu, or visit the Web site at www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu/snohomish.
Other free events include the Puget Sound In-Depth Monthly Lecture Series. The next Beach Watchers lecture is set for Apr. 14 at Rosehill Community Center in Mukilteo. Dave Ward will discuss stormwater run off, how it can contribute to pollution and ways to avoid it.
Beach Watchers storybook readings offer a fun way for children to learn about the rich diversity of local plants and animals as well as etiquette for looking at animals on the beach. The next storybook reading is Apr. 14 at Mountlake Terrace Library.
Also look for Beach Watchers at Mukilteo Lighthouse Park and Kayak Point State Park during low-tide days this summer. More events can be found at www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu/Snohomish/events/index.htm.
Beach Etiquette Tips
from the Beach Watchers program
•Please leave all living organisms in their native habitat, where you find them on the beach.
•Walk with care to avoid injuring plants and seaweed. Plants and seaweed prevent erosion; provide habitat and hiding places for intertidal organisms. They also provide food for many animals and insects.
•Step on bare spots as much as possible, walking slowly and at a safe pace.
•Overturn rocks with care, if doing so. When finished looking, return them gently to their original position to avoid crushing anything that lives underneath.
•Kneel quietly by tide pools, taking care not to walk in them or put your hands into them.
•Fill any holes you may create if digging for clams. Piles of sand left on the beach can smother other organisms.
•Leave creatures attached to rocks, rather than removing them for study, since removal may kill them. Since it is natural for them to be attached, more can be learned about them by observing where and how they choose to live.
•Enjoy anemones without prodding them. Anemones will often squirt water if poked, but this can kill them because they need that water for survival until the next tide covers them.