For the fortunate few, a childhood passion can become a grown-up career — and the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary’s Laura Francis definitely considers herself lucky in her choice of occupations.
“I absolutely love my job,” said Francis, a huge grin spreading across her face.
It all started about 30 years ago, when she attended camp at CIMI (Catalina Island Marine Institute) as a Brandon School sixth-grader. Even at that young age, Francis says she “just had that ocean connection. ... I wanted to learn more right away and become an ocean advocate.”
As education and outreach coordinator for Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Francis has spent the past 17-plus years trying to ignite that spark of connectedness to the ocean in others.
Established in 1980 and overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 1,470-square-mile sanctuary surrounds Anacapa, San Miguel, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands — all part of Channel Islands National Park. The sanctuary is intended to preserve and protect the natural and cultural resources within its boundaries.
“I have a really great opportunity to do a lot of work with lots of different people, from students to teachers to volunteers to community groups,” Francis said. “I also am able to work on a really big variety of projects.”
Recent projects include Ocean for Life, which brought together 12 students (ages 15 to 18) from the United States and Canada with 18 students from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“All of these students came together for the common purpose of learning about the ocean and learning about how the ocean connects people of all cultures,” she said. “It was really exciting for them to be here.
“Some of the kids had never been in the ocean before, they had never snorkeled or kayaked or hiked and they had just really loved the experience,” she added. “Everybody bonded — the entire group. And there were kids of all different interests and skills and they were helping each other out. It was really neat.”
While Francis has always had a passion for the ocean, she says “the first inkling that I had that I wanted to do marine biology was when I did a year abroad in Australia and I was able to spend some time diving at the Great Barrier Reef.”
That trip was also where she met her now-husband, Steve, an Australian who is the founder and chief product officer of LogicMonitor, a Santa Barbara-based technology company.
Francis is hopeful that the Ocean for Life program will give her students similar lifelong connections, if not romantic ones.
As a result of the program, “I now have 30 new Facebook friends,” she laughed. “It’s really neat to see how they are continuing to talk to each other and stay connected. I really think they’ve created lifelong friendships. Some of these kids will be future leaders and will remember that experience.”
Another component of the program were youth media projects developed by the participants. Assisted by National Geographic photographers and American University film students, they used photography and video to capture and share what they learned and tp promote ocean conservation and cultural understanding back home. Click here to view the projects.
The Ocean For Life students are not the only budding filmmakers. Francis herself produced her first film last year, Beneath the Rainbow Bridge, which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The documentary tells the story of the California coast’s cultural and natural history and illustrates the fragility of the Channel Islands.
Spreading the word about the dangers of ocean acidification is another passionate project for Francis, whose 9-year-old son, Jayden, loves the water just as much as his parents do.
“The pH levels of the ocean are dropping (becoming more acidic) now at a rate and to levels not experienced by marine organisms for over 20 million years. It’s alarming,” said Francis, who recently worked with volunteers from Citrix Online to develop a Web site, www.cisanctuary.org/acidocean, to help the public better understand the science and to help do something to curb ocean acidification.
Francis is also designing exhibits and programs for the new Outreach Center for Teaching Ocean Science, a state-of-the-art educational facility under construction at UCSB that will bring together the sanctuary and UCSB’s Marine Science Institute.
Francis is actively fundraising for the exhibits and the programming, which will target about 40,000 students and teachers every year.
“A lot of really great exhibits are planned,” she said. “There’s an underwater immersive; it feels like you’re underwater on a virtual dive, as if you’re diving in a kelp forest or a coral reef or another environment.
“It’s like an environmental simulator so you can take data from anywhere in the world and create an underwater experience. The students are given the tools to go down as if they were scientists.”
The Outreach Center project will also bring Francis’ professional life back to USCB, where as a graduate student she studied deep-sea biology in the building next door to her new digs. The highlight of that student experience was descending 9,000 feet in the ocean in the Alvin Submersible, a three-person research submarine.
“We got to go down to the hydrothermal vents and see the giant tube worms and crabs,” she said. “It was about an eight-hour dive. Then we got interviewed by NPR when we were down there. ... It was just so cool to see that part of the ocean. Not many people ever get to go down there.”
Francis encourages others to get out into the water and visit the Channel Islands.
“A lot of people live in Santa Barbara and Ventura and have never been out to the Channel Islands,” she said. “It’s just this backdrop. I say go explore your backyard, go learn about it and go find out about it and get involved.”
In addition, “We have a really great volunteer naturalists program,” she said. “We have about 130 active volunteers who serve as naturalists on the whale watch boats and they lead island hikes. It’s a great way to get out there and be in the place and connect with the environment.”
She also recommends going in the water and snorkeling or kayaking.
“The solitude and quietness of being out in a kayak is pretty special,” said the Mesa resident, whose family shares its home with five chickens, four fish, two dogs and a cockatiel.
“The great thing about my work now is that I get to be there when people connect with a place, and they see how meaningful that is to them and how it really can change their life ...,” she said. “Then it becomes their responsibility to take care of it.
“Once you really learn and know about something and you see your first blue whale or you see your first ocean sunfish, it usually inspires people to want to do something to take care of the planet. I think that’s probably my favorite thing.”