Greenwich Native Leads Sea Foundation, Greenwich Citizen News, 03/03/06
By Joan Lownds
Source: Greenwich Citizen News
Along with palm trees, visitors in Maui, Hawaii, should expect environmental beach patrols in wide-brimmed hats and T-shirts emblazoned with sea turtles. These "roving naturalists" offer advice on marine responsibility as part of a program founded by Greenwich native Liz Foote. For her ocean conservation work, Foote, 30, was recently named a 2005 Environmental Hero by Maui No Ka Oi magazine and a runner-up for Person of the Year by Maui Weekly. Foote's volunteers operate under the auspices of Project SEA Link (Science, Educa-ion and Awareness), a non-profit foundation that she established in 1999 and now serves as executive director. The field workers number in the hundreds and include local students and residents trained by Foote. They provide information to tourists on topics such as "how to snorkel and dive in a responsible manner," Foote said in a telephone interview. For example, standing on a coral reef can damage it. "People don't realize that coral is a living animal, related to jellyfish or sea anemones, and very delicate," she explained. "So we tell snorkelers to find a sandy spot to stand on if they get tired, or bring a floatation device."
Beachgoers are also asked not to kick the reef with their fins or break off pieces as souvenirs. bFoote said her love of the ocean started at Tod's Point beach, which she frequented as a child. "I was always there, investigating and collecting critters from the tidepools, hermit crabs, snails, starfish," she explained. "I've always been fascinated with the ocean and everything in it, and wanted to know everything about the whole ecosystem." Her parents, Angela and Jim Foote, still live in Old Greenwich.
They nurtured her interest, sending her to sea camps in the Florida Keys and enrolling her in scuba diving classes at the YMCA. "They were always supportive, even if they didn't actively participate in the things I was doing." When Foote graduated from Greenwich High School in 1993, she was awarded the Host Foundation Scholarship Award in Oceanography. Foote then attended the University of California at San Diego and received a master's in marine science from Oregon State University. In between studies, she worked as a whale watch naturalist in Gloucester, Mass., volunteered at the Norwalk Maritime Aquarium and taught coral reef ecology aboard a schooner in the Virgin Islands.
A Life Not Landlocked
After completing her graduate studies, Foote moved to Maui, where she found a niche in her coral reef and other conservation efforts. Her "roving naturalist" program was sparked when Foote was conducting beach surveys and someone mistakenly identified her as a ranger. "I was dressed in a wide-brimmed hat and khakis, carrying a clipboard," she explained. "I heard people say, 'There goes the ranger.' Then it occurred to me that a great way to promote the program would be to have the volunteers wear the hats and official-looking T-shirts with nametags. It confers authority on them."
Sometimes the volunteers set up tables to talk to the tourists, and "people often line up with questions," she noted. "I think there is a definite connection with knowledge, attitude and behavior. If people have the knowledge, they change their attitudes and behavior and are responsible." Foote and her field workers also promote awareness about other marine animals such as dolphins. "Sometimes people get too aggressive and pursue the dolphins," she explained. "We tell them that if the dolphins want to approach you, they will." Another important topic of misinformation is fish feeding. "When people feed the fish, they become dependent on humans for food and ignore their natural food sources.
This disturbs the natural balance of the reef," Foote explained, adding that she started a fish feeding amnesty program, collecting food from would-be fish feeders. She also warned that fish could be aggressive when prowling for food and may bite people. "People should think of the fish like the bears in Yellowstone Park," she said. "You shouldn't feed them." Project SEA Link also sponsors an "Adopt A Reef" program, allowing residents to actively participate in the care and monitoring of a coral reef. Volunteer divers and snorkelers are given training in identifying "the endemic fish, such as butterfly fish, trigger fish and surgeon fish," according to Foote, and then take surveys of the species populations.
Foote explained that this helps to maintain the national database, a valuable tool for conservation and research programs.
Foote was also recently named the Hawaii Field Representative for the Coral Reef Alliance, another non-profit organization dedicated to keeping coral reefs alive. She will act as a liaison for the group's projects, which are aimed at establishing "sustainable coral reef tourism on Maui and in Kona through education, good environmental business practices and collaborative conservation practices," according to Sherry Flumerfelt, program manager. Because of Foote's "deep commitment to community-based conservation," she was a natural choice for the position, said Rick MacPherson, program director. "She will be an invaluable asset to our program."
Labor of Love
Although Foote's own SEA Link organization uses an extensive network of field workers, its headquarters are based in her Wailuku home, which she shares with David Politiano, her fiance. Politano works as a scuba instructor and also serves as Foote's SEA Link partner. Foote is currently building the Web site herself: http://www.projectsealink.org. She also writes grants for funding and listed some of the recent benefactors as the Hawaiian Tourism Authority, The National Fish and Wildlife Association and various other local foundations.
Along with the administrative work, Foote logs more hours than she can count conducting beach cleanups, teaching and surveying. "It's a job that never ends," she laughed. "I wish I had more hours in a day." Still, Foote finds the enterprise ideally suited to her personality. "I love the work I'm doing," she said. However, she sometimes she misses New England, "especially in October or early May," she said. Foote's mother, Angela, is a proofreader and copy editor, and her father, Jim, is a photographer, real estate broker and the owner of Greenwich Custom Real Estate Services.
Her younger brother Dan, 26, is an entrepreneur and avid surfer in Newport Beach, Calif. While attending Greenwich High, Foote was co-captain of the volleyball team and an enthusiastic swimmer, although mostly underwater. "I wanted a mask and fins," she said. On Maui, Foote also worked as a substitute teacher and now helps to develop curricula aimed at marine conservation. Foote views the ocean as the greatest classroom, and a fixed presence in her life, ever since her childhood at Tod's Point. "I just can't imagine living anywhere landlocked," she said.