Ed Stenson makes his way through the lobby of the UGA Aquarium, pausing for a moment as Genell Gibson, the UGA Aquarium receptionist, sings “good morning to you” to the tune of Happy Birthday.
“Where else can you get that kind of greeting?” says Stenson, explaining that this is a morning ritual. “Other staff have even started joining in.”
For six years, Stenson has volunteered at the UGA Marine Education Center and Aquarium on Skidaway Island, lending a hand behind-the-scenes and assisting with education programs for k-12 students.
“Some of the kids come in and can be a little shy, but most of them have their eyes wide open,” Stenson says. “We encourage them to interact with the animals and before you know it, they’re holding a horseshoe crab…or at least touching it.”
Stenson first visited the aquarium with his wife Mary Ann after moving to Savannah from Rhode Island in 2011. During the visit, a staff member picked up on his enthusiasm for the work being done by educators at the facility and encouraged him to consider volunteering.
He applied following the visit and has since arrived every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 9 a.m. to begin his shift. He first cleans the protein skimmers that remove food and waste particles from the aquarium’s 16 exhibit tanks.
“It’s not my favorite activity, but it’s necessary,” he says.
The rest of his morning involves measuring and recording salinity levels in the Skidaway River and feeding some of the aquarium animals, including the seahorses and Lefty, a two-year-old loggerhead sea turtle. Once he completes his tasks behind-the-scenes, he jumps into assisting with the Sea Star programming for students in grades k-4.
“Not only can he be counted on to be on time, but he even comes in early to finish his aquarium duties before running off to help with our elementary school kids at the touch tanks,” says Lisa Olenderski, curator and k-12 educator at the UGA Aquarium.
Stenson’s time as a volunteer will soon come to an end as he and his wife recently made the decision to move back to Rhode Island to be closer to grandchildren. Hurricanes Matthew and Irma also factored into their decision to move. After evacuating during both hurricanes, the couple decided that the unpredictability of coastal living was causing a little too much stress.
“Filling the gap Ed leaves behind is going to be difficult,” says Katie Higgins, marine educator and volunteer coordinator at Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant. “He’s become such a staple at the aquarium. His dedication to his work and joyous demeanor will be hard to replace.”
While Stenson is sad to leave his role as a volunteer behind, he remains hopeful that someone will come along who has just as much passion for the coast and a desire to inspire others to respect and appreciate marine environments.
“Educating kids alongside some really great people is what makes it enjoyable,” he says. “I’m sure there are people out there who are ready to get up and get going.”
Volunteering with UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant is a great opportunity to build and connect with your community, learn new skills, gain experience in marine science or education or mentorship of others. Do you have a passion for the marine environment and desire to share your enthusiasm with others? Visit https://t.uga.edu/4at for more information.