Liz Petterson may hail from a landlocked state, but that hasn’t quelled her enthusiasm for ocean conservation. “I’ve had my feet on the terrestrial world for a while now, so to be able to reach back and connect again with the marine environment and bring all of my experiences to do some good for that environment feels like I’m reconnecting; it makes my soul happy,” she says.
Prior to her current position as Arizona Land and Water Trust Executive Director, Liz spent years working in marine research, education and conservation off the coast of Maine as a whale-watching naturalist. She describes a couple of key moments that further ignited her passion for ocean advocacy.
“I was out on a whale-watch trip one evening,” she recalls. “We were about 20 miles offshore when we were surrounded by what some call ‘whale soup’ — 10 to 15 humpback whales plus additional fauna, such as seals, sea birds and more.”
Capitalizing on this unique situation, the vessel captain cut the engines, which at that time employed propellors rather than water jets. “We all sat there in silence for about 20 minutes as the whales came right up to the side of the boat,” Liz remembers. “It’s one of those things you never forget.”
This was followed by a seemingly chance encounter with two identified whales named Viper and Gemini. After naming the pair in a discussion with elementary school students about marine conservation, she accompanied the children on a whale-watching excursion. “Guess which two whales showed up?” she questions, her voice still tinged with awe. “I asked the kids who that was out there, and they shouted out, ‘Viper and Gemini!’ Isn’t that crazy?”
Even crazier, she asserts, was spotting Viper again years later. “I thought to myself, ‘How did you know I was going to be here?’” Liz recalls. “Of course, she didn’t, but it’s those kind of connections that I’ve had that have been mind-boggling to me.”
When Liz learned of a board member opportunity with Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF), she didn’t hesitate to apply. Profoundly inspired by the nonprofit organization’s mission to protect the ocean through science and advocacy and inspire environmental stewardship, she was drawn to the organization’s “three legs of the stool” approach emphasizing marine research, education and conservation.
“It’s critical for the next generation to learn how to be better ocean stewards,” she explains. “And it’s critical to educate communities on what they can do now and how they can become involved in marine conservation.”
Liz views broad community engagement as a necessary hinge-pin for success in any conservation effort. “Helping people understand how their day-to-day activities, whether they live in Iowa or on Maui, impacts the marine environment is key,” she notes. “Wherever one lives, being aware of how plastics and other marine debris affects our oceans and what small things they can do to help, including spreading the word in their communities, is so important.”
While policy and legislation are also crucial, she acknowledges, those are often governed by a small group of powerful people. “But when you look at the mass population — that’s power,” Liz dissects. “That can make a really big difference, because the more people are educated, then policy starts to be influenced.”
Although she’s observed Pacific humpbacks off the coast of Monterey, Calif., Liz says she’s looking forward to getting to know the humpback whales of Maui Nui. “I can’t tell you how excited I am,” she enthuses, adding that she’s also eager to see Hawaiian green sea turtles and possibly swim with some of her favorite sea creatures, manta rays, when visiting Hawai‘i.
Liz hopes her passions, experience and acquired toolbox can assist PWF in brainstorming ways to engage and interact with the community in advancing conservation efforts. Armed with vast experience in nonprofit management, educational programming, fundraising and development, public relations and marketing, and advocacy related to environmental and conservation issues, as well as proven expertise in grant writing and other forms of communication, she brings to the Board established relationships with myriad government agencies and foundations, as well as undeniable skills in navigating and developing new connections.
She is confident she can assist in brokering connections with foundations and organizations with which she’s familiar. “It’s all about relationship-building with foundations and grant-makers,” she asserts. “If I could step in and say, ‘I’m a board member from Pacific Whale Foundation, and I’d love to share our work with you and see if it might be something you’d be interested in funding,’ I’d be more than happy to have those conversations.”