© Natasha Ewins

I volunteer - Giving time to the ocean

Date posted: 9 October 2018

As the Seasearch dive programme reaches its 30-year milestone, Beachwatch tops 25 years and Capturing our Coast completes its planned three-year run, we celebrate the army of volunteers, past and present

Ann Hunt MCS

From cleaning beaches to working in our offices, survey-diving, doing seaweed searches and marine life recording, our volunteers are our true Sea Champions – and the charity’s backbone. Most charities rely heavily on volunteers and MCS is no different. Since our small beginnings over 35 years ago in a garden shed in rural Herefordshire, volunteers have been our lifeblood. We could not exist without the goodwill of thousands of people who give up their time for the oceans.

MCS was started by volunteers. 1977 was deemed ‘Underwater Conservation Year’. In 1979, the Underwater Conservation Society was established, organised by DIVER magazine and environmental broadcaster Professor David Bellamy, to promote conservation amongst divers and involve them in monitoring marine habitats and species.

In 1983, the name was changed to the Marine Conservation Society to take in the seashore and wider coastal zone and to broaden the membership appeal to a wider UK public. All this was done with volunteers.

These days MCS is a very different beast, with a staff of around 60 dotted around the country. But volunteers are still the mainstay. We’re in contact with them by enews, emails, social media and pretty much every other stream going. But when we started Beachwatch 25 years ago, dial-up was in its infancy and you were lucky if you knew anyone who had it.

Looking back at how we kicked off a national event in those days of letters, stamps, landline phone and typewriters feels like a miracle!

In August 1993, Ann Hunt read a letter in the Ross Gazette from a local charity saying they were short of staff and money and were desperate for volunteers. The charity was MCS and she offered her services.

Today she’s a salaried member of staff – but her first two years were as a volunteer. “We were dealing with letters by hand. There was one computer that eventually had the internet on it between about six staff. I got here just a few weeks before the first Beachwatch event. In those days we were supported by the ‘Readers Digest’ who provided a volunteer pack which listed the beach clean organisers. I think we also had some well needed promotion on the BBC’s Sunday afternoon charity appeal slot, ‘Lifeline’. We had to come into the office and man the phones which rang off the hook. “The David Shepherd Foundation gave us a big list of names and addresses to contact would-be volunteers – no data protection to speak of in those days! – so there was a lot of label writing and trips to the Post Office.”

Tynemouth beach clean in 1997

That first Beachwatch weekend resulted in 121 beaches being cleaned by just over 1,200 volunteers – it was organised by Frazer McGilvray. “To find our first organisers, initial contacts were made to the Environmental Departments of the County Councils. Several of them put us in touch with grassroots organisations locally and we contacted various environmental groups and MCS local groups also helped.

Most volunteers seemed to be coastal, as that’s where most of the publicity was generated. but some did come from inland. “Communications were done via phone, fax and yes, letter!! Each person had to be contacted on an individual basis, not group calls or emails. And of course, we were trying to build up our organiser list during the summer months when people were on holiday, so you just had to either leave a message with a colleague or wait two weeks and call when they got back to work!

“We sent out a ‘How to Organize a Beach Clean and Survey’ pack which was based heavily on the one that was created by the International Coastal Cleanup, in Texas. We had to make ours more ‘British’, and make sure the survey sheet was translated from American into English! Once the organiser had more of an idea how many volunteers they were expecting, we sent out the appropriate number of survey sheets. “I remember being very excited when the first volunteer organiser signed up and said they would do it. I think the programme was bigger than we expected at the time and we got a huge amount of publicity at the end.”

If you’d like to find out more about MCS and the work we do why not come along to our ‘Big Night Out’ event at the National Museum of Wales, in Cardiff, Tuesday 6th November 2018 5:30pm. Find out more

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This article was written by Clare Fischer (MCS), for our Autumn 2018 membership magazine ‘Marine Conservation’. If you’d like to receive our fantastic quarterly magazine straight to your door, you can become a member from as little as £3.50 per month.

Actions you can take

  1. Read our annual reports and reviews
  2. Explore the 'How you can help' section of our website
  3. Open our Strategy 2018 - 2028 .pdf

Did you know?…

To date, our beach cleans have removed over 11 million pieces of litter

MCS launched its Sea Champion volunteer programme in 2012 thanks to funding from M&S

Every year, volunteers give us over 1,000 days of their time

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