Programs focus on education, research
She was 41 by the time she saw her first whale off the coast of Maui, and Michigan-born Peggy West-Stap says it changed her life.
"I immediately decided I wanted to provide the opportunity for anybody to have the same experience," said Stap, 58, who in 2006 founded Marine Life Studies, a Monterey Peninsula environmental organization specializing in research, education and conservation surrounding the protection of marine wildlife.
Stap and a gaggle of volunteer ocean stewards were hosts Saturday of a five-hour whale-watching cruise on Monterey Bay for "Flip for Whales," a special fundraiser to keep the nonprofit alive and thriving.
The day was a dandy 70 degrees, with placid waters. The crew and passengers of the 60-foot vessel "High Spirits" spotted around 50 whales — mostly humpbacks — plus a variety of other sea life.
"We saw whales breaching, coming up to feed. ... It was just a stellar day," said Jerry Perezchica, the organization's program manager. "We also saw lots of sea lions in mass formations because as the humpbacks were feeding, they also were expelling food, and the surrounding marine life was taking advantage that."
The economic climate for nonprofits is challenging nowadays — grants have diminished or vanished altogether, and donations have largely dried up. But Stap and her staff are determined to battle the tides for their cause.
"My greatest love is the ocean, doing research on whales and dolphins, teaching research techniques to our interns, taking kids, teenagers, college students and adults out on the water so they can experience it personally and develop a love of their own," she said.
"We've educated people from the Midwest, where I'm originally from, about the fact that anything they do there will affect our waterways and oceans. If we can show those people how wonderful our oceans are, and send them back home with that knowledge, maybe we can reduce the amount of plastic use."
Plastic is the ocean's enemy because it never goes away — it only degrades into smaller particles. Plastic and other contaminants from waters like Lake Erie — which has more parts per million of plastic than the infamous stretch of floating debris known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — travel downstream to the ocean, where they are ingested by sea life (and, subsequently, ingested by humans).
Marine Life Studies takes a multi-pronged approach to education that includes Stap's own creation, Take It to the Streets, a regular cleanup effort in which volunteers pick up trash before it can reach storm drains, which flow into Monterey Bay.
In bimonthly cleanups since April, plus one in January, they've collected 66,335 items, including 44,844 cigarette butts, 9,493 plastic items and 7,001 paper items, plus metal, foam plastics, household items and medical hygiene items. The collection weighs 900 pounds.
"We don't just collect the trash, we analyze it," Perezchica said. "What we're striving to do is understand the source of the trash so we can better educate the public."
The organization also teaches classes at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Monterey County in Salinas and Seaside, then takes the students whale-watching. A highlight of a recent trip was when Nick Levin, skipper of the Star of Monterey, shot off his engines, then asked his passengers to be completely quiet so they could hear the one-of-a-kind sound of a blue whale expelling a 30-foot spout of water from its blow hole.
Stap and Marine Life Studies also are involved with an effort to track down and free whales that have become entangled in fishing line, fishing nets and other man-made debris.
The organization has attracted interns — who serve as ocean stewards on whale-watching excursions — from as far away as Australia and Ireland.
Sarah Colosimo, an Australian, said she was connected with the organization through a friend who had done humpback whale research with Stap.
"He told me that Peggy also did orca research, and I'm really passionate about orca whales, so I got in touch with her and here I am," Colosimo said. "It's a truly amazing experience. Doing research is totally cool — a dream come true. I had my first experience with an orca last weekend, which was a moment I had waited for my whole life."
Rachael Sutton, a Lake County resident, said part of her pleasure is watching other passengers enjoy their own whale-watching experience.
"We saw a lot of humpbacks today, and a whole bunch of sea lions jumping around, playing with them," she said. "It was so much fun watching other people experience this awesome thing we have here in Monterey. Connecting wildlife and people together is really great."
Twins Ben and Georgia Bence, both Monterey High School sophomores in the school's Marine Animal Ocean Science program, met Stap through a class she taught for the Regional Parks District.
"It's been my dream to have hands-on experiences like this and to really make a difference," Georgia Bence said. "This organization has given me so many amazing opportunities. Whales are so majestic and beautiful, and just being able to witness the power is overwhelming."
Marine Life Studies is a finalist in Toyota's "100 Cars For Good" competition, which will award a new vehicle to the organization that receives the most online votes. Visit www.100carsforgood.com on Nov. 9 to vote.
To donate to the program or learn more, call 901-3833 or see www.marinelifestudies.org.
Dennis Taylor can be reached at 646-4344 or firstname.lastname@example.org.