Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

We Got Crabs: My Volunteer Experience at Heal the Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

Why was our pregnant female kelp crab so intent on inflicting death by consumption upon the cute little male?

If you're a Santa Monica resident of any age, form, or profession, consider volunteering for Heal The Bay's Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Glam color-changing cephalopods, adorable baby sharks, and man-eating crabs are just a few of the curious characters you'll meet while working there.

Also be prepared to encounter a few more: future marine biologists who are bilingual and pre-Kindergarten; couples at the roller-coaster peak of something bronze and lei-flowered at its best (which you won't see at its worst); silver-tiara-ed wheelchair-bound birthday girls who stand up and shame their nurses into touching the sea stars by doing it first.

Skills you can develop range far beyond the ability to rattle off facts about local marine creatures: you'll also learn how to communicate with a wide range of different types people who need different things from you.

Furthermore, opportunities abound to make like-minded friends, pick up some Spanish/Russian/Chinese/Korean/German, and it's a great excuse to basically people-watch (which is essential for all kinds of creative professions such as fiction- or screen- writing, therapy, art, animation... everything your stereotypical Santa Monican does for a living.) The most important perk? You'll be contributing to an organization that's well-established and strong enough to incite real change, but at the same time, is not to big for new volunteers to find a niche and a circle of trustworthy friends.

The mission of Heal The Bay is noble and ambitious: to inspire a passion for the ocean and connected ecosystems, and for that passion to ignite into policy, publicity and physical restoration efforts that leave a glittering trail of success stories for the fragile, threatened, and unique environments of Southern California's watersheds, coastlines and the great wide ocean beyond.

Here are some potential reasons not to volunteer: if all you want is to get community service hours by sitting on a wood stool behind a touch tank, please stay away. There are easier ways to get those hours signed off (stapling 3rd grade grammar worksheets, for instance) and a volunteer who is more likely to drown at the sight of her/his own ravishing Instagram account than to listen intently to a six-year-old's account of finding an octopus in her swimming pool can only do harm, and cannot contribute positive energy, to the mission of forward-looking aquariums as a whole: that is, opening the door for people to discover for themselves how fascinating and important ocean ecosystems are to protect.

However, with that said, anyone interested in people, ecology or both who is highly motivated to do something about it – for much more than just college-app brownie points – should know about this excellent opportunity.

A 100-hour commitment per year is required, and public volunteers fill their role best by continually studying up on the animals and learning new, quirky facts about them as well as understanding their ecology and physiology well enough to explain it to a layperson.

This sounds intimidating, but again, it's all about motivation. In my time there this past few months, I watched as utter newbies soaked up every drop of ocean science like sponges (most of which are actually hard and encrusting, like the ones on our turban snails' shells.) As for me, trained mostly by Pinterest/Wiki/miscellaneous conversations with a marine biology teacher whose class I am not qualified to take, I found myself learning new things every day – asking aquarists and biologists questions about the exhibited creatures, reading up on them in French to exercise my second language, watching David Attenborough's Blue Planet episodes as a candied apple atop my metaphorical marine ecology textbook stack that was the wealth of information the Internet and the Aquarium offered me.

A few questions I still can't answer: why was our pregnant female kelp crab so intent on inflicting death by consumption upon the cute little male? And who really ate him? And will the blond girl still be with the blond boy in a few months, or will she switch to the other blond boy? And what will become of the magical child who rolls her eyes when her mother wants to leave the sea star tank for more "pressing" orders of business? I may never know... but each day is a fresh crash course in everything!

The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium's website address:

Heal the Bay's website address:

Disclaimer: I was not incentivized by Heal the Bay or its Aquarium to write this article. However, we do always need volunteers!


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