Newport Bay Conservancy helps to preserve this natural gem through education, research, restoration and advocacy.
By Sharon Stello
Back in 1967, Frank and Frances Robinson and other local residents came together to raise awareness about the Upper Newport Bay’s ecological importance and to advocate for its protection. Over the years, that mission has continued, although the organization’s name has changed from Friends of Newport Bay to the Newport Bay Conservancy, merging with another group, the Newport Bay Naturalists, along the way.
In tribute to its heritage, the conservancy still offers Friends Tours for the public on the second Saturday of each month from October to March, harkening back to the monthly nature tours started by the Friends of Newport Bay in 1968. This season’s last one is planned March 12 and reservations are requested; free tickets are available on eventbrite.com. The 90-minute guided tour—covering about a mile round trip—is suitable for all ages and provides an easy-to-understand overview of the bay’s ecology and history.
The conservancy also offers year-round guided kayak tours every Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon in partnership with the Newport Aquatic Center, as getting out on the water is considered one of the best ways to experience up-close views of birds and other wildlife from terns to skimmers and egrets flying by. Sometimes a silver mullet fish will even jump out of the water and stingrays may occasionally be spotted gliding below the surface. Tickets for these tours, which cost $25, may also be reserved on eventbrite.com. Anyone ages 8 and up may participate, but those under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
As a nonprofit, the conservancy remains volunteer driven with an active board and small but dedicated staff. More than 200 trained volunteers—who have contributed in excess of 120,000 hours of service—assist with programs that connect over 50,000 people to the bay annually.
In addition to advocating for preservation of the Back Bay, as many call it, the conservancy is dedicated to education, research and restoration. The public may visit the 10,000-square-foot Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center for exhibits and panoramic views of the bay. The center also offers a short video called “Nature in Your Backyard” about the bay’s upland area. In coming months, a new video, produced in partnership with OC Parks, will focus on the bay’s underwater life such as the California two-spot octopus.
Locals can also get involved by donating money—memberships range from $25 to $1,000—or time by volunteering in many ways, including cleanups on the fourth Sunday of each month to remove trash around the bay.
The conservancy helps the environment in other ways, too, with many avid birders and naturalists in the group taking part in official bird counts and nesting surveys. In particular, the organization helps keep an eye on populations of the light-footed clapper rail, which is an endangered species. Meanwhile, students and adults alike can get involved with a monthly, hands-on Marine Life Inventory conducted by the Back Bay Science Center and supported by the conservancy.
As urban development continues to encroach on open spaces, wetland habitats like the Back Bay—an estuary where fresh and saltwater mix—have dwindled over time. By 1975, less than 10% of Southern California’s original coastal wetlands remained intact. In fact, in the 1960s, there were plans to turn the Back Bay into a marina with waterfront homes and private docks. How different the area would look now if it weren’t for concerned locals like the Robinsons, who helped found the group that became the conservancy, successfully fighting these plans in court to preserve this precious bay.