11/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

An Ocean of Inspiration

People often ask me how I came to be so committed to ocean conservation. Did I have a life-changing ocean experience as a young child? Did my family spend a lot of time at the shore? Was I an avid diver at a young age?

The truth is, I rarely went to the ocean as a child and didn't get interested in it until college, when I took a course in marine algal ecology. There I discovered the tide pools, a new and intriguing part of a natural world that already had become my life passion.

People who are making a difference for conservation invariably say they found their passion for nature by spending time outdoors or in museums: sometimes observing, sometimes hiking, hunting or fishing, but always sharing the energizing experience of discovering something new and hidden. It could be a bird's nest in the tall grass, a colorful tide pool sponge under a rocky ledge, or a silver fish revealed in the dark water.

Being inspired by nature is what the Monterey Bay Aquarium is all about. As we prepare to celebrate our 25th anniversary, it is so encouraging to realize how many people we've touched -- people who are taking the inspiration they found here and making a difference for ocean wildlife. It's a reminder that each of us has the power to create positive change in the world.

I'm certain that every one of the 46 million visitors we've attracted has a story to tell about how their visit affected their view of the world. I'd like to share just three of them with you, as a reminder that your visit to an aquarium, zoo or museum can change a life -- and change the world.

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Will Jones is just a little boy. But he has had a big impact.

In 2005, he was just six years old when he visited the Aquarium's sea otter exhibit with his family. When he heard about the threats that otters face in the wild, his heart went out to them.

"Dad, you've got to do something to help," he said. "The otters are dying."

Will's dad took his young son seriously.

"It was sort of a neat moment," said Dave Jones, "because I'm there in the aquarium with the kids, the kids are upset and I thought, 'There is something I can do. I can learn about this, and I can try to see if there's something we can do about it.'"

Will's dad was a member of the California state legislature. After talking with staff at our Sea Otter Research and Conservation program, he and a colleague co-authored a bill to provide significant new protections for otters: stiffer fines for harming sea otters, a provision for increased research funding to discover why the sea otters recovery has stalled, and an income tax check-off to support the research.

The bill was signed into law and took effect in 2007. Since then, the voluntary tax check-off has raised $750,000 to support sea otter research.

Few of us will inspire landmark legislation the way Will Jones did. But all of us can help protect sea otters. And it's inspiring to know that a visit to the Aquarium can have such a lasting impact.

* * *

Discovering his passion for the oceans prompted Gerhard Kuska to change the course of his life. It set him on a path from visitor to Aquarium volunteer, to serving as the ocean policy adviser to the President of the United States.

Years ago -- another lifetime, really -- Gerhard was the successful manager of an international cargo transportation company in San Francisco. He enjoyed his job, but the stress level became unbearable.

To relax, he and his wife took weekend trips to Monterey and the Aquarium.

"It was like a sanctuary -- a place to get away and enjoy myself more than I did at work," Gerhard said.

He also realized how happy everyone was, from staff and volunteers to the visitors.

"It brought a change in me so profound that I had to question what I was doing in my life," he said. "So I went on a mission to investigate how I could work toward better stewardship of the oceans."

Gerhard quit his job and moved East to pursue a doctorate in marine studies. And he began to live his dream -- crafting ocean policy for government officials and the United Nations, working on fisheries management issues and joining staff of the U. S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Ultimately he served for two and a half years as Director of Ocean and Coastal Policy under President George W. Bush.

"People don't think about the impact a single individual can have; we all see ourselves as one among millions," Gerhard said. "But for me to go from being a volunteer at the Aquarium to being able to affect change and help others effect change makes me want to tell everyone to get involved, to demonstrate their passion. Because it's only through individual action that we have an opportunity to make big changes."

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For four-year-old Darcy Taniguchi, her first visit to the Aquarium was a life-changing experience. It provided a connection with a world she'd never seen before -- a world that's now the focus of her studies and her career.

Darcy lives in California's great Central Valley, far from the coast. But when her parents brought her to the Monterey Peninsula and took her to the Aquarium and the beach nearby, she was transformed.

They returned on family trips a half-dozen times a year. And the animals and exhibits left a deep impression. She remembers colorful comb jellies in a special exhibition in 1990. She was absorbed by the touch pool and especially the gumboot chiton (which resembles a fleshy marine pillbug). She enjoyed the soft feel of the sea cucumbers, which looked as if they'd be so much rougher.

By the time she was in fourth grade, she knew that she wanted to be a marine biologist.

"I knew I needed to be near the ocean, to make it part of my life and have a job that involved the ocean," Darcy said.

In applying to the doctoral program in marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, she recalled her early inspiration.

"Staring, completely absorbed, at the striking exhibits of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and wetting my feet and hands in the tide pools of Asilomar Beach, instilled in me a lasting curiosity about the ocean," she wrote.

This August, she brought her skills to sea as part of a scientific expedition exploring the ecological impact of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch -- an area of the ocean where plastic debris concentrates, and where plastic fragments may outnumber living plankton.

For Darcy, it's the latest chapter in a life's passion sparked nearly 20 years ago when a little girl first visited the Aquarium.