Congratulations to this year’s volunteers of the year!

Volunteers conduct beach cleanup activities in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo credit: NOAA

Each year, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation shines a light on the invaluable role of volunteers in our national marine sanctuaries through its Volunteer of the Year awards. We invited each of the 14 sites in the National Marine Sanctuary System to select one volunteer, or a volunteer team, whom they feel made an outstanding contribution to their sanctuary and the entire sanctuary system, as their site’s Volunteer of the Year.  This is our way of acknowledging the efforts of individuals who donate their time and energy to help us protect and conserve America’s underwater treasures to safeguard them now and for future generations.

These volunteers participate in a wide variety of activities including diving, whale identification, beach cleanups, water quality monitoring, collecting field observations and surveys, acting as visitor center docents, and wildlife monitoring. 

Volunteers of the Year are acknowledged specifically for their contributions in the last year but many of them have been actively supporting their site for far longer, and continue to support sanctuaries. Thank you to these Volunteers of the Year, and all the volunteers in the National Marine Sanctuary System, for your dedication and compassion in helping others discover the wonder in our national marine sanctuaries.

This year’s Volunteers of the Year are:

Phyllis Grifman

Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

Phyllis Grifman is an Associate Director at the University of Southern California’s Sea Grant Program, a job that keeps her very busy. Despite those demands, she still sets aside ample quality time to help Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary in capacity as a volunteer member of the sanctuary advisory council. But she’s not just a regular member, she’s been volunteering for 16 years and has been elected multiple times as the council’s Chair. In 2020 Phyllis led the council through uncharted territory as public meetings transitioned to an online format. At a time when many people were ready to scale back or limit such meetings, Phyllis advocated for greater connection time among members, while expertly navigating the council through the demands of advising sanctuary staff on development of an updated management plan. What’s more, Phyllis stepped up among the 14 advisory council Chairs within the NMSS to develop and run a session confronting the barriers to achieving greater diversity on advisory councils, collecting success stories, and promoting practices that can make a difference. The advice generated is helping staff to make progress in this area. Everyone at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary feels very fortunate to have volunteers like Phyllis on the sanctuary team!

Nola Schoder

Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Nola Schoder helped design ways for education content on the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary website to become more accessible, searchable and available to new audiences. She helped bring attention to the diversity of Ocean Currents radio programs that have timeless educational value to more audiences by creating listening guides for educators including further teaching resources on the topics, and helped sort all the episodes into ocean literacy principles for topic based searching of programs.  Nola is a great example of how sanctuary outreach and education can serve towards stewardship. She heard a sanctuary outreach program (the sanctuary’s radio program on the community radio station saved as a podcast) and came to our website and saw the call for volunteers and volunteered. She is also a graduate marine studies student doing remote schooling, so putting her passion to help the ocean through volunteerism and her own education. 




Clint Barras

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

Clint Barras has been an unwavering advocate for Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary during his tenure as a member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council. Through his years of service on the council, Mr. Barras held the position of Tourism – Lower Keys, and during his most recent tenure, was nominated by the council as the chair. His leadership saw the sanctuary through the release of the Restoration Blueprint, the announcement of Mission: Iconic Reefs, and the transition to virtual meetings. Mr. Barras is the Vice President of Two Ocean Digital Media, and in this role has consistently incorporated sanctuary messaging into his communications campaigns. In addition, his company hosted the original Blue Star training website and Mr. Barras personally contributed his resources and time to the initial development of that product.

Clint Barras exemplifies the role of advisory council members in community engagement. He takes his role of community liaison to heart, and works diligently to help the sanctuary understand the public’s perspective, and ensure the public has every opportunity to engage with sanctuary management. Mr. Barras consistently rises above the expectations of a council member, and is truly passionate about protecting the resources of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.


Janai Southworth

Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary

Here, on the edge of the Eastern Pacific Ocean, Janai Southworth explores the stunning local marine plankton with her microscope, her camera, and her nature journal. Janai’s interest lies at the intersection of art and science. For several years she has volunteered with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and through her experiences there, has fallen in love with marine plankton. Nature journaling plankton has been a key part in her personal journey as she learns about the magical world hidden beneath the waves. Janai has a Bachelors degree in Fine Arts and enjoys taking science classes at the local community college. Janai is a big fan of life long learning and is making a big splash in the community of plankton enthusiasts with her Instagram posts (15,000 followers), Twitch sessions (a treasure trove of two-hour long livestreams), and her latest weekly project on YouTube: “Pulse of the Plankton.”

Janai is an exceptional volunteer and raises the standard of excellence in our program. She excels at teaching the science of sanctuaries to people of all ages ranging from the next generation of innovators to adults. Her photography and social media skills have diversified the audience following sanctuary science through her multiple digital plankton platforms. Her combination of plankton enthusiasm, talent as an artist, and engaging interpersonal skills make her truly outstanding as a sanctuary volunteer. When many volunteer programs and activities were paused due to the pandemic, Janai found a way to be essential to our thriving virtual marine science programs and made the biggest impact.

Grant Thompson

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary

Grant Thompson began volunteering with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) in 2008. He not only volunteers his time and expertise, but has also contributed funding and his own resources assisting the sanctuary.  Grant’s volunteering began with vessel operations and maintenance, but over the years broadened to include response, response preparedness, and research and monitoring. He’s been integral in helping with vessel emergency preparedness through his expertise, and through personal contributions has provided equipment like emergency knives, field tourniquets, and COVID-19 safety gear to the team.  Grant also volunteered his own vessel for use during research and monitoring when the sanctuary vessel was unavailable. Furthering his commitment, he fabricated a new knife, known as the “Thompson Blade” which is used for cutting embedded wraps entangling whales.

Grant also contributes to the sanctuary’s overall preparedness, risk assessment, equipment acquisitions and maintenance, as well as daily operations like dune restoration, on-site irrigation, and outreach. He spends time sharing knowledge and experience with other volunteers, staff and the public. Grant and his volunteerism elevate the level of expertise and professionalism of HIHWNMS, helping them become a world leader in whale disentanglement. The breadth and depth of Grant’s volunteering is extraordinary, and everyone at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is grateful for the time, energy, and generosity that he gives to the sanctuary.

Seamus Harris

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

Seamus Harris is a recent graduate of Port Angeles High School and Washington State’s Running Start Program at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, WA.  He is currently a sophomore studying Film, Video, and Audio Production at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.  Soon after the pandemic changed our world and social engagement, Seamus offered to assist Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary education and outreach team with video technical support, providing numerous outreach products that are regularly being used for K-12 distance learning activities and general outreach. Seamus enjoys playing guitar, creative games, and spending time with family and friends. His future plans include a career in filmmaking and audio production. 

Seamus is an outstanding example of the next generation of young professionals who may serve as stewards to protect special places, like national marine sanctuaries, using unique skills and talents to keep up with our changing times. When sanctuary educational programs went online, staff experienced a significant learning curve for producing virtual content, including video. Seamus provided Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary with the expertise needed to produce and edit videos. These videos were used to raise awareness about Olympic Coast, the entire National Marine Sanctuary System, and the changing ocean.  Seamus saved sanctuary staff significant time and effort in assisting with video technical support for K-12 distance learning, and general public webinars. The videos he produced allowed the sanctuary to develop products that are more engaging and relevant.  Additionally, Seamus was able to gain real world career-building experience that may influence his future career path. 

Jaxine Wolfe

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Jaxine Wolfe completed a Northeastern University (NEU) internship with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in 2018, where she collected and analyzed data for the Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Stewards (S4) program, participated in research cruises, and engaged in public outreach. After graduating with a B.A. in Biology, she continued to explore the intersection of marine ecology and data science, first at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and currently as a research technician at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where she works for the Marine Global Earth Observatory network and the Coastal Carbon Network. Throughout these years, Jaxine continued to volunteer as a data manager, to help our program advance to the next level. In 2020, she developed programming code to standardize our dataset and make it accessible to anyone for review and analysis; and automate data flow processes that were time-consuming and tedious. These improvements will make our work much easier and allow others to query and use the data easily.  In addition, Jaxine has contributed mightily to our outreach efforts, most recently recruiting another intern to join S4, starring in a Steward Snapshots video, and giving a Science Snapshot presentation to introduce diverse student communities to careers at NOAA.


Beach B. Hall

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Beach is a well-known, respected, and influential ambassador for Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. There is no task too big or small for him to champion with enthusiasm and tenacity until he achieves positive outcomes. Examples of his success include expanding the Thunder Bay International Film Festival to feature an “On the Road” component in which a special series of films are shown in advance at the Rogers City Theater. He personally invites community members to ensure sanctuary events are well attended and supported. 

When he and Marianne Hall learned that schools from Presque Isle County were not able to afford bus transportation to Alpena to participate in sanctuary educational and Film Festival programs, and experience shipwreck cruises aboard the Lady Michigan, the couple established a fund at the community foundation in collaboration with the Friends group to cover travel-related expenses. Now multiple school buses full of students from three different districts eagerly participate in a whole variety of sanctuary education programs.