Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is a hidden gem along the coast of Georgia. It is a 22-square-mile protected parcel of the ocean that hosts a variety of unique organisms and habitat. As a Georgia Sea Grant state fellow, I have had the privilege to work in the sanctuary office and learn about this special habitat and how to protect it. During my year-long fellowship, I have been a part of some historic moments at the sanctuary, including conducting a status and trends workshop that reflected on the past 10 years of management in the sanctuary as well as the overall condition of the reef. I have also assisted with opening the Gray’s Reef Ocean Discovery Center, a new visitor center in downtown Savannah that features interactive exhibits focused on the sanctuary.   

Every 10 years, each sanctuary in NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary system undergoes a process to evaluate the conditions of the habitats, organisms, and water quality in the sanctuary. Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary is currently evaluating the status of these parameters to create a condition report, which is a document that is vital to the continued management of this protected area. The condition report informs a management plan that is used to guide the science, regulations and goals of the sanctuary. The management plan can be found on the GRNMS website here and the condition report can be found on the NOAA sanctuary website here.

a young woman stands on a boat with SCUBA oxygen tanks lined up

Madison Monroe preparing to mark a dive site at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary for science operations. Photo by Alison Soss.

Like me, you may be wondering how a sanctuary would evaluate its condition over the past 10 years. For the answers, we look to the experts! As we prepared for the workshop, I worked with social scientists, researchers and economists to collect and evaluate hundreds of datasets that told the story of the sanctuary’s condition. Those datasets included information about water quality, organisms and human use of the sanctuary. After months of painstaking preparation, we gave several presentations to subject matter experts that helped us assess the current state of the resources and their data trends. In just three days of presentations, I gained an incredible understanding of not only Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary and research within it but also the systematic process for evaluating all sanctuaries. I also had the opportunity to connect with a variety of conservation-minded people and understand how interdisciplinary NOAA can be. 

While we were reflecting on the past 10 years, we were also preparing for the future of Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary. Because Gray’s Reef is 19 miles offshore, it is difficult for most people to access and experience the sanctuary. This new Gray’s Reef Ocean Discovery Center will allow the community to explore the sanctuary like never before! As a fellow, I have been an integral member of the education team and activities at the visitor center. I have written K-12 curriculum and participated in presentations to diverse age groups. When I joined the education team, I knew that this was a unique opportunity to explore a passion of mine and be part of a historical event. I feel proud to be a member of a team that is dedicated to public service and outreach. 

My experience at Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary has been interdisciplinary, innovative and impactful. Through this fellowship, I met people in all areas of the conservation community and developed critical skills for my future career. I am excited to sea (pun intended) where this opportunity takes me and how much I grow from it.