Interpreting with heart

Volunteer Rene Cortez

When Port Townsend Marine Science Center volunteer Rene Cortez moved to Port Townsend in 2021, he brought with him a passion for volunteering and a vital interest in marine conservation. For nearly a quarter-century, Cortez served as a volunteer in Dana Point, Calif., “the whale watching capital of the world,” putting his jovial presence and way with words to use as a tour leader and docent at the Dana Point Headlands Conservation Area, the Dana Point Historical Society, and at the Ocean Institute.

Rene Cortez in the exhibit on his day off.

Like many a newcomer to town, Cortez jumped right into the volunteer scene here in Port Townsend when he and his wife Diane, moved from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. He initially signed up to volunteer at the Jefferson County Historical Society, due to his love of history and Victorian-era architecture. In 2021, a chance encounter at the Flagship Landing welcoming party found him becoming a member of PTMSC, in part, he said, because membership included a free mug!

Soon, his membership drew him to attend a volunteer orientation and a docent training session, and he has been a reliable and enthusiastic docent for three years now, recording 300 hours of service to PTMSC’s mission.

Cortez retired from a career in grocery retail in 2001, and although he and his wife planned for him to get a part time job upon retirement, he began his extensive volunteer career instead.

A lively presence in the exhibits, he is especially fond of sharing his passion for cetaceans, and has a wonderful intuition with youngsters, drawing them out and revealing their enthusiasms, and sometimes their fears.

A few months ago, members of a a Girl Scout troop came to visit at the museum

As Rene tells it:

A beetle as seen through a microscope, and carefully drawn by a young visitor.

“Several of the girls were using the microscopes to view the items on the table. I went over to see if I could help. One girl was about to view the beetle and said it looked scary. I told her it was okay and to look at the specimen. After she did she asked me if I wanted to look…I told her maybe, but I was scared and might have nightmares if I viewed the beetle. She assured me that I wouldn’t, and so I looked at the beetle. Then I walked away to help some other visitors.

“After a few minutes she walked up to me and gave me her drawing of the beetle. She said to keep by my bed at night and I wouldn’t have nightmares!”

PTMSC encourages volunteer docents, or interpreters, to meet the visitors where they are; to not expect too much or too little about their potential knowledge level, and to encourage questions and reflection. 

Many of our docents, like Rene, have a broad range of skills in this role, bringing experience from organizations across the country, including the Woodland Park Zoo, the Seattle Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to name a few. Their varied backgrounds and knowledge levels enhance the visitor experience, providing a diversity that personalizes each visit.

Sadly for PTMSC, Cortez and his wife have recently decided to move out of the area, and have already purchased a new home in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he will be close to his adult grandson and wife.

But his enthusiasm for his time at PTMSC is strong — asked what he likes about volunteering at PTMSC? “Everything!” he said.

“The best part of volunteering here is that it is the one organization I’ve worked with, where from top to bottom, everyone is involved. We have Board Members who are doing Sound Toxins work, getting in the water, getting dirty. Most organizations aren’t like that!”

Excited for the future of the Marine Science Center

He definitely plans to come back often to visit, and is eager to see what the future brings for PTMSC, particularly at the Flagship Landing location. Cortez finds the Whale on the Wharf’s proximity to Flagship a fabulous opportunity to discuss the health of the Salish Sea, and the threats it faces that impact the health of gray whales and Southern Resident killer whales alike.

“It is a great visual, I find it to be a piece of art, and not just a skeleton, I’ve seen whale skeletons everywhere, from the Smithsonian to Los Angeles — and Gunther is something else.”

He says he’ll continue to monitor the health of the Southern Resident killer whale population, and is deeply concerned about their future, due to the harm caused by the destruction of salmon habitat, and the effects of industrial pollution. PTMSC will continue Cortez’s work to interest visitors in marine conservation, as well as our efforts to care for the Salish Sea’s inhabitants, and we are grateful for Cortez’s years of good-humored service. 

Interested in inspiring visitors about conservation of the Salish Sea?

PTMSC is planning a busy summer in the exhibit spaces at Fort Worden State Park. The Aquarium reopens on Friday, May 24, with both exhibits open Thursday through Monday, from noon to 5:00 p.m, for the rest of the summer. 

A volunteer orientation is scheduled for Tuesday, May 14 at 3:00 p.m. in the Museum classroom, and a docent training takes place Tuesday, May 21: with visits to both the Museum and the Aquarium.
RSVP to Tracy at if you are interested in attending either of these opportunities.

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