Running around a San Pedro beach in junior high school, listening to a lifeguard’s passion for educating kids about the strange reproductive dance by grunion, Paul Petrich was inspired. He now uses what he learned then to teach others about preserving the health of the ocean. It’s just one of the reasons he was recently honored as the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation Volunteer of the Year.
“Those who fish, those who use the ocean for recreation (and) those who never look at the ocean except through documentaries, need to come together and realize how important it is to save our ocean,” the Goleta resident said.
Petrich’s father and grandfather — immigrants from Croatia — fished the bountiful waters around the Channel Islands out of San Pedro. He spent most of his summer days on the beach or working on sport fishing boats. His dad became a captain of California Fish & Game Department research vessels, and Petrich developed a natural interest in the creatures of the sea.
Since 2006, the 73-year-old retired Ventura County teacher has been a volunteer for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. He’s donated 4,000 hours contributing to maritime heritage and outreach programs.
“(Petrich) has gone above and beyond to expand and enhance outreach efforts, reaching hundreds of visitors every year aboard commercial vessels, at the Channel Islands and at a variety of community outreach events,” Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, said in her remarks at the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation’s Leadership Awards Dinner earlier this month in Washington, D.C.
“Paul’s commitment and passion for the Channel Islands are inspiring, and we’re fortunate to have him in our community.”
At age 15, Petrich watched and learned from John Olguin, a chief lifeguard at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro who used an old reel projector to educate people about grunion.
“He’d run the movie on the wall of the bathhouse,” Petrich recalled. “He would show everybody … the story of the grunion that come out of the ocean and lay their eggs on the beach. It was fascinating … and I was inspired by that.”
Petrich presents his sessions as “virtual whale-watching trips.”
The slides and video clips are from the NMS archives as well as Petrich’s personal collection. Some of them portray blue whales, which have unique value to him because his father, who fished in local waters for 40 years, never saw one.
“But I told him, the year he passed away, that I saw 20 spouts of blue in one sighting, all feeding on abundant krill,” Petrich said. “My dad reacted by saying that we must be doing something right with those sanctuaries.”
This is something Petrich mentions on every boat trip as a docent for the Channel Islands sanctuary out of Santa Barbara, Oxnard and Ventura.
He said he is only one of 130 volunteers who do a fantastic job in sharing the marine science at work in the local sanctuary, and the many successes achieved. Thanks to the sanctuary system, he explained, there is hope for the ocean’s future.
“Now, the humpbacks come up to people watch,” Petrich said as he took a sip of his coffee. “They’re coming here to feed because the sanctuary is protecting their food base … and they’re coming in greater numbers, as are the giant blue whales, plus other marine mammals.”