You can help protect our ocean — here’s how

Pleasure Point at low tide
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Thirty years ago, Dan Haifley helped change the California coast from the driver’s seat of his 1972 Ford Pinto. As the only staff member of Save Our Shores, he drove up and down the coast urging communities to prevent oil companies from offshore drilling. Those presentations helped create a bulwark against drilling among coastal towns and were the first steps in the establishment of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. But there is still much to do — and he has ideas on how you can get started volunteering and making a difference.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

I often hear people wonder whether they can make a difference, if they can have an impact on our community and planet. My answer is a definite yes.

I know.

Thirty years ago, I helped establish the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, one of our nation’s great coastal treasures and one of the world’s most biodiverse regions. It teems with California sea otters, sea lions, blue whales, kelp forests and deep-sea wonders that give a sense of uniqueness to our lives in Santa Cruz.

On Sept. 18, the sanctuary celebrated its 30th year with a huge gala at the Cocoanut Grove. Meanwhile, on Oct. 23, the national network of marine sanctuaries and marine national monuments turned 50.

It’s incredible for me to think I played a part in establishing a place millions of people now visit and enjoy. The sanctuary covers 276 miles of shoreline and its staff partners with world-renowned research institutions (including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute) on projects such as the octopus garden north of Davidson Seamount.

If you haven’t looked at the webcam of these beautiful, mysterious creatures, or seen the life-affirming imagery of their “nurseries,” where thousands of octopi flourish, tuck into nooks and lay eggs, you are missing out on a local wonder, our own “octopus teachers.”

Of course, more work than that occurs at the sanctuary. Too much to name, including programs for tens of thousands of adults and schoolchildren, work on sewage spills, vessels in distress, and collaboration with farmers to reduce runoff into the ocean.

When I started, I had no idea about all that.

I had no idea what I would become a part of, what I could help accomplish and achieve. That’s often how it is with community work.

It can be the same for you. The key is to begin.

Let me explain.

My improbable journey

My improbable journey began in my Ford Pinto.

It was 1988. George H. W. Bush was president, and both he and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, wanted the U.S. to produce more oil domestically. They were eyeing federal waters near us, north of Monterey Bay.

I was the sole staffer for Save Our Shores. We, along with six other organizations, campaigned vigorously against the drilling. In fact, we advocated for the strongest possible protections.

Santa Cruz city leaders engaged me to encourage communities to enact laws restricting — or requiring a vote to allow — onshore facilities like pipelines and storage yards. It was the brainchild of local city leaders including John Laird, Kim Tschantz, Mardi Wormhoudt and Gary Patton.

pelicans fly over Monterey Bay
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz city voters also helped. They approved an ordinance and also authorized funding a campaign to spread the idea to other communities.

That’s when I got into my 1972 Pinto.

I drove from town to town with a slideshow in an old carousel rattling next to me in the passenger seat, and made the case up and down the coast to use local zoning laws to fight that oil development.

I sent out letters with then-Mayor Mike Rotkin’s signature, along with a copy of Santa Cruz’s ordinance, to get community leaders’ attention. I spoke to community groups, city councils and boards of supervisors up and down the coast. Anyone who would listen.

It was exciting, all-consuming, and harrowing. Once, I was driving and replacing slides in the carousel in the Pinto’s passenger seat on Highway 1 south of Mendocino when I swerved to avoid being hit by a loaded logging truck.

It was worth it.

Twenty-six communities passed laws, many through the ballot box, building a grassroots movement along the coast.

Meanwhile, the oil industry was stopping our momentum by suing 13 of those cities and counties. But we fought back and eventually we won in court. It was a seagrass rebellion, part of the multipronged effort since the late 1970s against the threat of offshore “lease sales” in federal waters.

Our argument — one that still holds — prevailed.

It’s quite simple. The ocean needs us. It’s under stress. It produces half the world’s oxygen, absorbs excess carbon from climate change and hosts an array of vital habitats.

We succeeded through teamwork. And because we got legislative support, specifically from then-Rep. Leon Panetta, who secured congressional authorization for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to begin the planning for a marine sanctuary.

We also had public support — over 4,000 people wrote letters or spoke at four public hearings — pushing for the largest possible sanctuary boundary.

And we were lucky. President George H.W. Bush — who’d been in the Texas oil business — was running for reelection in 1992 and needed California to win. (He’d won it in 1988.)

His allies, including Rep. Tom Campbell, lobbied him to tap into voter concern for coastal protection by approving the largest boundary. That’s how we got it.

King tides at the Hook
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s of course a much longer story, but the main point is none of it would have happened if people up and down the coast — individuals like you, like me — hadn’t acted.

We now have 15 national marine sanctuaries — including Monterey Bay — and two marine national monuments in a system established by Congress. Currently, 620,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lakes waters are protected. It sounds like a lot, but it’s a fraction of the more than 4 million miles of federal waters that exist.

Nominations are open for new sites. And there are areas already under consideration that need support.

That includes Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, covering potentially more than 7,000 square miles off San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties, which would be the first tribally nominated site. It’s hoping for a 2023 designation.

There are also others such as Hudson Canyon off New Jersey, Lake Ontario off New York, and Lake Erie Quadrangle in Pennsylvania, and tribally nominated sites at Alaĝum Kanuux̂ (Heart of the Ocean) off Alaska, St. George Unangan Heritage, also off Alaska, and Marianas Trench in the Western Pacific.

Get involved

It’s all wonderfully exciting, but these places need our help. And there is much more to do locally.

A pair of otters share an embrace off the coast of Moss Landing.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

For example, Santa Cruz County organizations that specialize in ocean and the watersheds that flow to it could use time, money or, if you don’t have much of either, signatures on petitions.

You could do coastal cleanups, lobby for plastics-use reduction, help rescue wildlife, promote science education, work on our wetlands, advance greater inclusion of communities of color in environmental advocacy and decisions and more.

You’ll be glad you did.

Just get started. Like me, you never know what can happen.

And yes, you will make a difference.

Dan Haifley was director of Save Our Shores from 1986 to 1993 and of O’Neill Sea Odyssey from 1999 to 2019, and currently serves on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Foundation board. His book, “40 Years of Saving Our Shores,” is available at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. He can be reached at

More from Community Voices