Gift to support UCSC research at Año Nuevo Reserve

By Christy Tall, UC Santa Cruz

Gift to support UCSC research at Año Nuevo Reserve
Over the last 29 years, John Fox has led tours for thousands of visitors and served as a mentor for 28 new docent volunteers. Image: Courtesy John Fox

It all started with a bad walk.

In 1995, John Fox took a tour at Año Nuevo State Park, home to the first mainland breeding colony of northern elephant seals. While he was awed by the state park—where every year up to 10,000 elephant seals return to breed, give birth, and molt their skin amongst the scenic dunes and beaches—he was underwhelmed by the docent who led his tour.

“I could do better than that,” he thought.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Fox completed the comprehensive docent training and began volunteering as a California State Park docent at Año Nuevo. Over the last 29 years, he has led tours for thousands of visitors and served as a mentor for 28 new docent volunteers.

“My favorite part is engaging visitors and getting them to the point where they are actively participating, contributing to the tour, and I’m learning something from them,” he says. 

Learning is important to Fox. He is particularly motivated by exposing young people to new information and educational opportunities they might not otherwise know exist. He hopes to inspire future scientists who care about making a difference in the world. Talking with them about the research conducted at Año Nuevo, much of it by UC Santa Cruz undergraduate and graduate students, is one way he does that.

Gift to support UCSC research at Año Nuevo Reserve
John Fox has been a docent at Año Nuevo State Park for 29 years. Image: Courtesy John Fox

Año Nuevo is part of the University of California Natural Reserves System and one of the five reserves overseen by UC Santa Cruz. The Año Nuevo Reserve supports a five decade-long, ongoing study of the growing elephant seal population, which has rebounded from near extinction a century ago. 

Fox is so passionate about the work being done at Año Nuevo by UC Santa Cruz researchers that he has done something special. He is including UC Santa Cruz in his estate plans to benefit the reserve far into the future.

According to reserve leadership, his gift is nothing short of transformational. As an endowment, it will provide stable, annual funds for the reserve in perpetuity. Fox’s gift—when realized—will help ensure that the research, teaching, and outreach at Año Nuevo will continue forever.

“The elephant seal colony and proximity to UC Santa Cruz has made Año Nuevo Reserve a world-class research site,” says Patrick Robinson, Director of the Año Nuevo Island Reserve. “The growth of the research program requires careful management, training of students, equipment, boat transportation to the island, road repair, etc. Currently, the limited staff focus largely on maintaining the existing research and teaching activities. This endowment will provide stable financial support in perpetuity, allowing UC Santa Cruz to facilitate more research projects, expand our class visitation program, and strengthen our link with the State Park docent program.”

weighing seals by drone
UC Santa Cruz scientists have made numerous discoveries about the ocean and marine mammal conservation by studying elephant seals at Año Nuevo Natural Reserve. Photo credit: Patrick Robinson.

Roxanne Beltran, Assistant Professor of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, conducts research at Año Nuevo. She and her team are tracking young elephant seals during their first few trips to sea and adult females during their routine, long migrations. Beltran celebrates the partnership with the docents in bringing the research conducted at Año Nuevo to the public. She lauds Fox for his expertise.

“We always enjoy running into John while he leads a tour,” she says. “Getting to hear John share his knowledge about the seals with a group of visitors makes us even more excited about our work.”

Fox and his 170 fellow State Park docents are indeed inspiring the next generation of scientists. Beltran says she receives applications for undergraduate field assistants who have been on tours at Año Nuevo.

“It’s a magical feedback loop of discovery, joy, partnership, and inspiration that is making the world a better place on so many levels,” Beltran says.

In addition to including UC Santa Cruz in his estate plans, Fox generously supports current projects at the reserve. 

“John’s annual donations give us a lot of flexibility to put money exactly where it is needed,” Robinson says. “One year we purchased flipper tags to keep the seal demographic project going, another year we set up an off-grid solar/battery system, and also built a deck as part of an outdoor classroom for field courses.  These are all incremental but important steps toward inspiring a growing number of future conservation leaders.”

Fox also led the effort to rehabilitate the visitors’ staging area, one of the most visited spots at Año Nuevo. With a $25K seed gift from Fox, State Parks was able to generate more than $250K for a project that will nearly double the staging area. The updated staging area will prime visitors to learn more, ask additional questions, and fully engage with the amazing experience of visiting a seal colony that is also an extremely active research site.

“What’s exciting about that,” says Fox, “is that visitors can see themselves in the work. It could motivate them to think, ‘I could become a UCSC researcher, too!’”  

the Blob
Fox’s gift will enable visitors and researchers to learn more about the northern elephant seals that visit Año Nuevo Island Reserve to breed and rest. (Photo by Rachel Holser)

Thanks to Fox’s current and future gifts, even greater numbers of visitors may discover their passion for pursuing knowledge. Robinson notes that Fox’s support continues to grow the reserve’s relationship with the State Park docents.

“The Año Nuevo docents communicate research findings to nearly 100,000 visitors each year,” Robinson says. “John’s gift will enable us to provide more opportunities for engagement with the docent community: lectures, Q & A sessions, materials, research tours, etc.  I truly value our partnership with the docents.  We provide the docents with the most up-to-date information and research findings, and they inspire wonder and awe of the natural world. This is how we can collectively have the largest impact.”

What began nearly 30 years ago as a poor experience has evolved into what will one day be a wonderful legacy.

“I feel so fortunate to be in this environment, to share this space, and it took a bad walk to make it happen,” Fox muses. “And here we are, strengthening partnerships [between the State Parks, the reserves, and the university], and making a difference for our future.” 

One response to “Gift to support UCSC research at Año Nuevo Reserve”

  1. Lucia MacLean Avatar
    Lucia MacLean

    This is awesome news and I have shared it with all of Año Nuevo State Park staff.

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