UW Today

April 3, 2012

For volunteer naturalist, the beach is a stage

News and Information

Deborah Trout has spent her life helping to create artificial worlds. Maybe thats why she turns to the natural one when she isnt working. She is a costume designer in the School of Drama, and in her spare time she hits local waterfront parks as a beach naturalist.

Shes no expert on sea life, Trout emphasized, just one of many volunteers who have gone through training at the Seattle Aquarium. And she delights in aspects of the work that are perhaps less salient to her fellow volunteers.

“As a costume designer Im a visual artist, and seeing these amazing organic forms and colors has always been pretty interesting to me,” she said. “The day I decided to become a beach naturalist I was out on low tide with my camera taking pictures of these bright green and red anemones that looked like Christmas ornaments.”

Deborah Trout volunteers as a beach naturalist.

Deborah Trout volunteers as a beach naturalist.

Beach Naturalists, Trout explained, go out at low tides in the summer, where they provide information and answer questions. Each volunteer wears a vest with many pockets for carrying informational materials, as well as an identifying cap. Shifts run about four hours and Trout said the time goes quickly.

What do people ask? A lot of it is identification, Trout said. Then there are questions about what the creatures eat, who eats whom, how long they live.

“One of the things weve learned is to make it into a teaching moment as often as possible so you can pose a question and then ask them to suppose,” Trout said. “You can admit, ‘I dont know, lets look it up. We have guidebooks with us.”

Theres also a “beach captain” on duty — a volunteer with more experience who can be a good source of information.

Trout said she has always loved salt water, though she didnt grow up near it. She did spend a fair amount of time on the Oregon coast as a child and delighted in the tide pools on Cannon Beach. But shes spent her life in the theater, starting with working on sets in high school and moving on to costumes in college. She worked in a number of theaters in the West before moving to New York City, where she and a friend started a commercial millinery business, selling mostly to the theatrical world.

“We thought it would be part time but we soon discovered that a small business is 100 percent of your time,” Trout said. “I spent four years building that business, and I loved being a small business owner, but I did not love making hats non-stop.”

Deborah Trout, senior lecturer in costume design

Deborah Trout, senior lecturer in costume design

With her MFA in hand, Trout was ready to leave New York and looked for job in a city with a great theater community. She found it in Seattle.

“Its been wonderful,” she said. “I teach both undergraduate and graduate students and I work with the theaters here in Seattle as well as farther afield.”

Trout lives in West Seattle, where shes enjoyed roaming the beaches at Alki and Lincoln Park.

“I saw the naturalists there and I thought, ‘Oh, this is something Id love to learn more about—the sea life, this world I stroll by,” Trout said.

The training is eight sessions — six at the aquarium and two on the beach.  At the aquarium, volunteers led by Janice Mathiesen and her team explore the exhibits and learn about the science of the Sound. On the beaches the volunteers get to see the creatures in their natural habitat.

Once trained, volunteers sign up for at least three sessions at any of seven beaches.

Once trained, volunteers sign up for at least three sessions at any of seven beaches.

Trout said many of the guest experts were UW professors. The program is co-sponsored by the aquarium, the King County Conservation District, the Boeing Charitable Trust, Forum for WRIA 8 and 9, Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and People for Puget Sound.

Once trained, volunteers are expected to sign up for at least three sessions at any of seven beaches.

She said she expects one day shell design a show inspired by the beautiful shapes and colors of sea creatures. She came close when she designed the recent Seattle Childrens Theatre production of “A Year with Frog and Toad,” which involved whimsical costumes inspired by but not literally like the animals themselves.

In the meantime, shes enjoying her time on the beach. “I love being outside. I love how your senses are assaulted when youre at the waters edge,” she said.

This was the final profile written by Nancy Wick before she left the UW at the end of December.