Beach Watermen/Waterwomen: What a Waterful Life

by Honus
Published September 17, 2009

Heather George counts fish. We’re not talking the Dr. Seuss “One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish” kind of thing, either. Heather is one of only 250 members worldwide, of the Reef Environmental Education Foundation’s (REEF) “Level 5” assessment team. This is serious stuff and seriously fun stuff.

We caught up with Heather at a local watering hole (where else?) to learn more about how she combines work with her life’s passion.

SBWW: Is it true you learned to swim before you could walk?

HG: It was close. I learned to swim at a very, very early age. My family lived on a sailboat in King Harbor when I was a baby, so swimming was basically a survival issue. We moved off the boat when my sister Holly was born and things got too crowded. But ocean sports continued to be a big part of our lives. In addition to being a longtime sailor, my dad swam the Pier to Pier race well into his sixties.

SBWW: And you’ve done a lot of both, too?

HG: I was lucky in that regard: sailing lessons and Junior Guards when I was young; Aviation High swim team; Pier to Pier swims — you know. I also got into triathlons during high school. After college I stopped doing tris, but now I’m training and competing again. We’re just did the the June Lake Triathlon in the High Sierra.

SBWW: Some 32 miles at over 7,000 feet of altitude. Congratulations. Now, let’s hear about this REEF Level 5 designation. What’s required to qualify?

HG: We have to pass a Caribbean species identification test that covers over 700 different looks – not only individual species but also juvenile, mature, male and female variations. Passing the test has allowed me to participate in research, including a post-Katrina species survey to help understand how marine sanctuaries were affected by the massive hurricane.

I also just returned from an amazing dive trip in Indonesia. One of the paying guests had to cancel at the last minute. Rather than forfeit her substantial deposit, she donated her spot to REEF. I was selected to represent REEF and conduct research. It was one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ trips people spend their lifesavings on, and I got to call it work.

SBWW: I saw the photos you posted. The boat you were on looked very comfortable, and the scenery above and below the water looks incredible. A nice reward for all the time you’ve dedicated to diving in our chilly local waters.

HG: Yeah, it all goes together. I love the work we do around here, too. Once a year we dive the Channel Islands to survey species and quantities in and out of the Reserve boundaries. Years ago, while I was with Santa Monica Baykeeper, I worked on kelp restoration and “keystone species” habitat projects. We dove twice a month to do urchin relocation and to monitor fish and invertebrate counts. That work eventually led to volunteer REEF surveys in Honduras, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. It’s all part of the same thing.

SBWW: You’re too modest to say it, so I will. You’ve worked your way up within the organization, and for a couple years now you’ve served on REEF’s Board of Trustees. Clearly, you’re not only comfortable with sea creatures, but you’re also good with the human side of things. How does your work at Aquarium of the Pacific inspire you?

HG: Believe it or not, one of my most memorable diving experiences was when one of the Aquarium’s large donors asked to dive in the main tank there, and I acted as ‘dive guide’ for him. The most amazing thing was seeing the reactions of all the little kids looking in. Their eyes were huge. I was as excited about watching them as they were about seeing everything in the tank.
I love working at the Aquarium. Ninty-five percent of the population has no other means of experiencing the marine environment, so it’s great for showing people how important the ocean is and why it’s to be protected. My favorite thing to do is follow kids around and watch as the light bulbs go on in their heads. Working the touch tanks is exciting too. People from all walks of life, from all over the world are getting such a thrill. Once they see it, they get it.

SBWW: What else do you have coming up? How do you see your water-oriented lifestyle evolving?

HG: I’m on the Manhattan Beach Environmental Task Force – the Water and Storm Water Subcommittee. Helping communities clean up urban runoff has been one of my personal missions, and I am happy to be contributing in a new way. Conservation is huge, and it’s our focus right now. It’s true that little actions, like turning off sprinklers, makes a big impact.
Further out, I see myself volunteering full-time, doing species research and also educating people. Opening people’s eyes to what the ocean eco-system is all about and what simple things we can do to protect it is so important. That’s how I plan to spend my time.

SBWW: Uh oh, it’s last call. Hey, since we’re in a bar, how about we wrap up with the standard pickup line: “Well, hello! What’s your sign?”

HG: Pisces, of course.

The Reef Environmental Education Foundation is a grass-roots organization that seeks to conserve marine ecosystems by educating, enlisting and enabling divers and other marine enthusiasts to become active ocean stewards and citizen scientists. For more information visit www.reef.org. ER