I’ve lived by the beach all my life. My sister and I swam with my father past the jetty into the deep swells off 34th street in Newport Beach. The soft ruffled tips of the waves carried me to shore like a gentle hand. I was 6 years old when I held a queen conch shell to my ear and listened to the ocean captured inside its pink spirals. From that day on, the ocean was magic and enchanted.
It was impossible to imagine what life would be like without our beaches until October, when Amplify Energy leaked 120,000 gallons of crude oil 5 miles off the coast of Huntington Beach. The day after the spill, signs were posted along the shore for miles. “Warning. Ocean water contact may cause illness.” This kept people safe, but it didn’t protect the marine life. Habitats and wildlife in Talbert Marsh were coated with oil and tar in all 127 acres. The spill happened the same weekend as the Pacific Air Show. The contrast of our ingenuity in the sky and our inability to protect our ocean was astounding.
Near the mouth of the Santa Ana River, several fish were trapped in a small pool of water. They swam in frantic circles through the shiny oil slick. I felt like the fish. Stressed, with a sense of urgency and responsibility to protect our natural world.
I RECALLED A HOT SUMMER day when my 8-year-old daughter and I walked through crowds of people on the boardwalk. Bicycles whizzed by us, toddlers played in the sand, and six large orange sea stars were laid out to dry on top of a patio wall. While the residents were out of sight, we took the sea stars and ran to the shore to set them free—a race for life. My daughter understood the sense of urgency.
She grew up exploring the tide pools in Laguna Beach and Corona del Mar. The pools were home to sea cucumbers, black turban snails, giant keyhole limpets, and a shy octopus hiding under a craggy rock covered with barnacles. The more we learned about marine life, the more we admired and loved the mysterious sea creatures. The octopus had a central mouth with a parrot-like beak, and sea stars had eyes on the end of every limb. I was grateful that the tide pools were preserved for generations to enjoy.
Orange County offers many camps and classes to support a child’s interest in our unique coastal environments. My daughter attended Estuary Explorer classes at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive center, the Fledgling camp at the Sea & Sage Audubon Society, and the diverse outdoor camps at the Environmental Nature Center.
Field trips took us to Bolsa Chica wetlands, where cormorants dived into the water and snowy egrets and great blue herons stood by the shore. But just beyond the boundaries of the protected area, there were more than a hundred oil rigs bobbing up and down. If one of them leaked, it would take 30 to 40 years for the wetlands to recover. The thought of the shorebirds covered in oil was unbearable.
WHAT CAN ONE PERSON DO? Most of the open space we see today is the result of small acts of activism. I’ve become familiar with some of the dedicated people advocating for coastal open space and conservation.
Jean Watt has spent almost three decades protecting wetlands, harbors, and beaches. She cofounded Stop Polluting Our Newport and Friends of Harbors, Beaches, and Parks. Bo Glover is the executive director of the Environmental Nature Center. Under his 20 years of stewardship, the center constructed its own eco-friendly building and opened the first nature preschool in the community. Terry Welsh began his campaign to save Banning Ranch 21 years ago with a handful of volunteers meeting at his home. In 2019, a family donated $50 million to the Banning Ranch Conservancy for the acquisition and preservation of the last coastal bluff top in Orange County. The Bolsa Chica Land Trust was formed in 1992 by a small group of Californians; now it has more than 5,000 members.
I grew up diving into waves and digging through the wet sand for tiny crabs that tickled my hands. The ocean was a place of peace, rejuvenation, and joy. It was everyone’s ocean and it welcomed millions of people every year. Now it’s our turn to care for it.
My daughter is a young adult now. She respects nature and has rescued several injured birds over the years. Her generation has leaders like Greta Thunberg, who began protesting alone and is now a global voice against climate change. She inspired me to lease a plug-in hybrid electric car.
We all have the power to do small acts of activism and make a difference, one sea star, one bird, one marsh, one bluff top, and one ocean at a time.
There are many organizations in Orange County working to preserve the ocean, coastal habitats, and marine life. Check out these groups: Banning Ranch Conservancy Surfrider Foundation Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center Sea & Sage Audubon Society Newport Bay Conservancy Bolsa Chica Land Trust Environmental Nature Center Pacific Marine Mammal Center