Every other Saturday morning junior Erin Cole wakes up early and drives down to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium at 6 am to volunteer. She started volunteering almost two years ago, during the summer before her sophomore year when her love for the aquarium and a family friend prompted her to try the teen conservation leaders (TCL) program. Cole commented, “I dreamed of working at the aquarium since I was in third grade. I got really obsessed with sea otters in third grade and decided I wanted to work with sea otters at the aquarium. Now I don’t know that I would want to spend all my time working with sea otters, but I have always wanted to work there and so there are times that I will pause and realize I am so close to actually — I don’t get paid obviously — but I am so close to actually working there. It is so cool.”

Erin Cole teaching aquarium guests about sea animals in the touch pools. Credit: Jeannie Cole.

Describing her job at the aquarium Cole explained, “I am a volunteer guide, so I stand at exhibits all throughout the aquarium and rotate every half an hour and talk to guests.”

Cole also volunteers at the aquarium over the summer working in other programs. Cole commented, “last summer to fall I helped plan the aquarium’s teen summit. [The summit] was a group of teenagers from around California, [who] came and they worked on planning conservation related projects that they were then going to go and implement in their schools or communities.”

The teen summit was almost entirely planned by five teenage volunteers, Cole being one of them. Together they planned all the activities the high school and middle schoolers participated in and arranged for two speakers to come and teach students about conservation.

Cole loves working at aquarium exhibits and watching quests become inspired by what they learn and see in the there. Cole commented, “because [the ocean] is something I love so much and think is really important, it is something that I love being able to share with other people.”

One of Cole’s favorite moments was when, she commented, “I was telling this man about the little jellyfish and at the tiny drifters stations and he came back later, while I was still there, with his family and was telling the rest of his family about the [jellyfish].”

Erin Cole showing young aquarium guests jellyfish. Credit: Mollie Sampson.

Another one of Cole’s favorite moments, she stated, “was this one time last summer, at the touch pools I had been talking to this girl, and before they left the girl’s dad was like ‘she decided today that she wants to work here when she gets older.’ And I was like that little kid was me when I was in elementary school!”

One of Cole’s favorite exhibit to work at is the tiny drifters station in the jellyfish area. There, aquarium guests can look at baby jellyfish and plankton through microscopes. Cole loves to show people the baby jellyfish, which look nothing like jellyfish, and see their amazement when they look at grown jellyfish and see the difference.

At the aquarium Cole has learned much more about the ocean and sea life, however, she commented, “I think people think I know a lot more than I do… I can know a few things about a lot of different things because I work at all the stations… [but] I have learned a lot about octopuses and jellyfish and all the animals in the touch pools, and a lot about conservation and that side of things also.”

As a part of the TCL program, Cole is focused on conservation of the ocean and bring awareness to human actions that are threatening it. Cole commented that she still remembers when one of the TCL staff told all the new TCL volunteers that they were “on the hook to be conservation leaders and to advocate or conservation and tell people how important it is.”

Cole stated, “that really struck me in that moment where I was like, so I have chosen to do this and I have to live that out and try to teach other people.”

During her training Cole has learned about many threats that the oceans face because of humans. Cole commented, “ocean acidification was something that I had never heard of prior to our training. Basically, the more carbon dioxide we put out into the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, and so do obviously plants and other bodies of water, but the more we cut down forests and take away those other things that take in carbon dioxide, the more pressure gets put on the ocean and on top of that we are just putting in more carbon dioxide. And so when the ocean is absorbing all that carbon dioxide it actually changes the chemistry of the ocean and it is making the ocean more acidic. And it is a really tiny amount but the pH [potential Hydrogen] scale is like the Richter scale… so even a small change is bigger. And just the balance of acidity and salinity, and all the chemical things that are going on in the ocean has been relatively consistent for so long that even a small change can make a big difference.”

Cole stated that she has also learned about “things like global warming, sea level rise, [and] plastic pollution. There are so many different issues that are big problems, and if we don’t do something now we are not going to get a chance to do something later. We have to try to stop these things from happening.”

The more Cole has learned about threats to the ocean and environment, the more she sees the importance of conservation. Cole commented, “I want [the ocean] to matter to other people, and I think the reason that I care about it is partly because I have been able to see sea life at the aquarium. That was my first exposure to all these animals that are going to be or are being affected by this, and humans will be affected by this too. And being able to share that with other people, even if I am not having directly conservation related conversations, because I am not always, but being able to share, because it is something that I love so much, being able to share that with other people I really like.”

While Cole sees the value in learning about environmental problems and the role humans play in global warming, many others in the U.S. have not. Cole commented. “having a president and leadership of our country advocate for [disregarding environmental concerns] at this time, when science is proving so clearly that we need to go in the other direction now, is frustrating and kind of sad. But at the same time, it makes me want to do more.”

Erin Cole participating in the March for Science in Monterey. Credit: Jeannie Cole.

However, Cole is encouraged by the action many Americans have taken, including work and research done at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and facilities like it, and regular citizens participating in events such as the March for Science and Climate Change March. Cole stated that at the aquarium, they had “the March of the Penguins for Science. We had penguin related pro-science signs. That was fun. And then after I got off shift I went to the end of the Monterey march. There are a lot of people that know this is important and are willing to do something at least to try to make a change. So that is definitely good.”

Cole also works to be environmentally friendly in her daily activities. Cole commented that when she first started the TCL program they asked all students to bring a no-waste lunch. Cole stated, “I [was] like well shoot, because I packed my lunch in plastic bags and was like, this is going to be really hard. So we got Tupperware and started packing no-waste lunches and it’s really not that hard. I don’t use plastic bags in my lunch anymore. That is a big thing because I think about how incredibly many plastic bags we went through.”

Now Cole has implemented other daily habits that allow her to cut down on waste. For instance, she tries to never use plastic straws or utensils. Cole has her own set or utensils that she carries with her when needed and asks waiters and waitresses not to bring her straws.

Cole recognizes that changing is not easy, she commented, “It is hard to change people’s behavior because changing behavior takes effort. And if you don’t care you are not going to put in the effort to do it.”

However, Cole believes that making a difference can be easier that one thinks. The first step that Cole states is to “try to be conscious of how the decisions you are making affect the environment. Like how being conscious of the number of plastic bags I was using made me realize, oh, well this is a lot. And then once I started to not use them I realized it was not actually that hard… or even doing something as simple as when you go to a restaurant saying, ‘I don’t need a straw.’”

Cole continued to say that sometimes even asking a simple question can work to bring change. She explained, “if you go to a seafood restaurant or you are buying seafood, a lot of stores around here like I think Safeway and Whole Foods actually have signs that say ‘we have sustainable seafood,’ but asking ‘is your seafood sustainable?’ Even if your waiter or waitress doesn’t know, or even if the answer is ‘no,’ if people are asking that they will start to realize that they are important. So something as simple as asking that question, or saying you don’t need a straw, over time, or if a lot of people are doing that it can add up to making a big difference.”

Cole is interested in continuing to work in the fields of marine biology and environmental science, however, she is still deciding exactly how she will do that. Cole commented, “I have not done any sort of lab work and I don’t know if that is what I want to do as a career. What I do right now is informal education, I am telling people about the animals and about conservation, and I really like that side of things. But who knows, maybe I will really like working in a lab.”

Whatever aspect she focuses on, Cole commented, “the aquarium’s mission statement is ‘inspiring conservation of the oceans,’ and so that is what I am passionate about doing because I have learned how important it is.”

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