Beach Watch volunteers gather crucial info about Bay Area shorelines, and even oil spills

Rodeo Beach was nearly deserted when Jan Roletto strode out onto the sand. It was a Tuesday in September, and an unseasonal weather pattern had brought gray clouds th at blended in along the horizon with a sea churned by a stiff breeze off the Pacific Ocean.

On such a day, many might choose an indoor cafe over outdoor recreation, but Roletto spent the next few hours zigzagging across the beach between the pebble-strewn high-tide line and a lagoon, stopping occasionally to peer farther down the beach through a pair of binoculars.

About halfway down the beach, Roletto halted after scanning the white-capped water, jotting down “BNDO” three times in her notebook. She spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins, which are fairly rare this far north.

Later, after a complete survey of the beach, Roletto would upload all of her four-letter codes — all of which stand for an animal — and other information she had gathered.

That information would then be fed into a large database that now contains 20 years of information gathered by a small staff and an army of volunteers. The project, called Beach Watch, has amassed one of the largest pools of data about any coastline since starting in October 1993. The information is used by scientists and policymakers in the area — and even in a well-known legal fight over a large oil spill in San Francisco Bay.


Roletto works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as the research coordinator at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. The federal agency administers the marine sanctuary that starts in the waters west of San Francisco and stretches north along the coastline.

On the day Roletto was at Rodeo Beach, a small stretch nestled in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco, she was taking part in the Beach Watch program.

The basic premise of the program is fairly simple. There are two people assigned to beaches that stretch from Año Nuevo State Beach at the south end of San Mateo County north to Bodega Head in Marin County. The volunteers stagger their schedules so that surveys are completed every two weeks.

The volunteers — typically armed with binoculars, specialized forms and digital cameras — document many aspects of the beaches, including overall conditions and visitor trends, and count birds and mammals, dead or alive.


Walking around on a beach and taking notes about animals may seem simple, but the details of the program make the task complex. To properly comb an area, volunteers must zigzag between the high-tide line and inland side, scanning the sky, sand and water for vertebrates that are alive while also searching for dead animals, which can be camouflaged by sand or hidden under marine debris. All the while, they are also continually looking for tar balls, which can be just tiny dots of oil amid miles of shoreline.

To prepare for the task of volunteering in the Beach Watch program, people must first take 80 hours of training and then have yearly refreshers, according to Maria Brown, the superintendent of the marine sanctuary. The classes include such topics as identifying animals and how to properly collect oil samples from a beach in a way that can preserve the integrity of the evidence up to the standards needed for a legal case.


Having data that stretch back 20 years allows policymakers and researchers to understand the normal conditions of the shoreline that Beach Watch covers. That baseline includes how much oil shows up naturally on area beaches, according to Brown.

After the Cosco Busan sideswiped the Bay Bridge in November 2007, more than 53,000 gallons of oil spilled into San Francisco Bay. Some of that oil was carried under the Golden Gate Bridge and ended up on area beaches.

One dispute that arose was how much of the oil found on Bay Area beaches actually came from the Cosco Busan, Brown said. The specially trained Beach Watch volunteers were able to collect samples in a way that allowed scientists to match oil found on the shore with that spilled by the Cosco Busan. The oil must be picked up and stored without ever touching any other plastic so as to avoid cross-contamination.

The collections, matched with information about how much oil would typically be found on a beach, helped map the spread of the tanker's oil, which led to a larger penalty against the shipping company for environmental damage.

“They said the beaches were previously oiled,” Brown said of the shipping company. But the data from Beach Watch helped prove otherwise.


The Beach Watch data may help in future oil spill cases — or in environmental incidents, such as when it was used to solve a massive gull die-off in San Mateo County in 2003 that was eventually linked to an open-air refuse station — but collection is slow and mundane, though thoroughly enjoyed by the volunteers.

About a week after Roletto was at Rodeo Beach, volunteer Mary Cantini was at Ocean Beach near Sloat Boulevard with her friend Don Harrison, who was along to help count animals. She started the morning with what is called a “beach profile,” a picture from the same vantage point every visit.

“It's a wonderful way to spend a morning,” Cantini said of the fogless sky.

From there, she and Harrison walked north from Sloat Boulevard, counting the live birds and noting what people were using the beach for that morning — mostly surfing and walking dogs.

Cantini talked about the dead animals she has found on the beach — a rare stripped dolphin, a raccoon — but stopped when she came upon a dead bird.

“It is kind of strange to see dead things and get excited about it,” she said, noting that such moments are the closest she will ever get to the animals.

When the volunteers find a dead vertebrate, they take a photo to document the animal and location — the cameras have GPS devices — and as much information about the species as possible. For birds, the volunteers clip off the ends of the wings and feet of birds, which act as markers to avoid double counting in the future. Once the documentation is complete — all dead animal pictures are later double-checked by a staff member for identification purposes — the volunteers move on in their search.

For Cantini, that search involved a long walk up the beach from Sloat Boulevard to Lincoln Way, which is about 2 miles.

“I love this beach,” Cantini said. “At first I didn't want to take it [the assignment] because it is in The City and there is a lot of trash. I love it now; there are so many birds.”


That love for the beach and the animals may be what brings Cantini and the more than 100 volunteers back. The Beach Watch program has an impressive retention rate for volunteers — 85 percent each year – who assist the handful of paid staff.

The work of volunteers, which is backed by funding from the nonprofit Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, allows for the vast amounts of information to be gathered. Other programs in California and in the northwest document either the conditions of the beaches or track dead animals. But Beach Watch does both, making it an international model.

The information is handed over to federal and state decision-making bodies, including the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and California State Parks, Brown said. Those agencies can use it for small programs, such as protecting snowy plover nesting areas, or for longer-term planning like preparing for rising sea levels.

“The longer we have the data, the more value we find in it,” Brown said.

She noted that the program already has had a marked impact on the coastline, noting that the area's beaches were among the dirtiest in the world when Beach Watch started.

“Now we have some of the cleanest in the world,” she said.