NEWPORT –– Sue Finlayson has been volunteering as an interpreter for 25 years, starting only a year after the aquarium opened. Her years of service have given her a bar pin which sits on her chest, reading “5750 hours,” and dozens of stories about working with the public. Her favorite part of working as an educator for visitors, though, is the children.
“I think I enjoy the kids questions the most,” said Finlayson. “Even the small kids can ask very intelligent questions.”
The wonder of children and adults, alike, is a shared love among many of the aquarium’s interpreters.
“I just like to watch the expressions on people’s faces when it’s the first time they’ve seen a puffin,” said Greg Covell, a volunteer of three years. “A little kid that was just here a little while ago, he’d just seen a movie about puffins and never saw a puffin before, and was so excited … it’s just so cute to see that. And then adults: like, if you were over at the touch pool and somebody reaches down and touches an anemone and it touches them back.”
Around 400 volunteers actively serve the Oregon Coast Aquarium. Beth Hawkyard, one of two volunteer managers at the aquarium, commented that the facility couldn’t run without their volunteers.
Early in the mornings, husbandry volunteers prepare the aquarium for the day by cleaning habitats, cutting up food and vitamins for the animals and testing water quality. As the aquarium opens, visitors are greeted by volunteer concierges in the summer.
“It’s a lot of fun. I find myself wanting to do it,” said Hawkyard.
Concierges work alongside the admissions staff to quickly and kindly help guest navigate from the front desk to whatever attraction they would like to see first. By answering questions that visitors have at a side table, the volunteers allow the staff to keep the admission line moving quickly, which is key during rush times.
“It’s fabulous, you literally see the guest’s are like, “ah, okay.” Their shoulders drop,” said Hawkyard.
As visitors continue through the aquarium, they may see divers behind the glass. These volunteers check on with the animals and ensure a clean environment inside the tanks.
On the other side of the glass, patrons will meet interpreters, who act as guides and educational resources in various areas.
“The interpreters we consider our frontline educators,” said Hawkyard.
This, Hawkyard said, is the largest group of volunteers, with nearly 200 interpreters serving at the aquarium.
All volunteers go through the same process to become a part of the aquarium’s team. After filling out an application — which can be found at aquarium.org/support/volunteer — aspiring volunteers are interviewed. Having passed that phase, they must undergo training for their desired position. For interpreters, that involves taking a class which helps them absorb basic knowledge about coast wildlife, the aquarium and the animals who live there.
“It’s basic marine biology, but we have to meet everybody’s needs and everybody’s level of knowledge,” said Hawkyard. “We actually have a marine biology instructor in class this next session, in October, and we’re like, ‘oh, dear.’ But then you have the other folks who are like, ‘I’m moving from the midwest, I know nothing about the ocean,’ so our class has to be somewhere in the middle, so that folks are comfortable with the knowledge and sharing with anyone from their range.”
The next interpreter training class begins Oct. 4th.
For those on the fence about volunteering, Finlayson gave this advice:
“Come to the aquarium and just hang around a volunteer, and follow that volunteer from station to station. That way you would get an idea of what she does. But you have to remember that there are other positions than as an interpreter. I think people have to see. It’s one thing to read about and get the description of what a volunteer is, it’s another thing to see what’s involved.”
Individuals must be 18-years-old to volunteer at the aquarium. However, for minors who are eager to serve, the youth volunteer program has an age requirement of 14.
While the schedule for volunteering is flexible, college students may find that an internship with the aquarium which is integrated into their class load may be more convenient.
For more information about volunteering at Oregon Coast Aquarium, contact the volunteer services department at [email protected]