In recognition of World Oceans Day, the Keys Weekly spoke to three “ocean protectors” to hear firsthand how the blue waters have impacted their lives and shaped their careers. 

STEPH SIROTZKE

Grant administrator, Mote Marine Laboratory

The Lanikai Mermaid

Steph Sirotzke works at Mote Marine Laboratory as a grant administrator for coral restoration and research grants. She’s also known as the Lanikai Mermaid who’s promoting conservation. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

Growing up in Illinois, I always had bigger plans and a salty dream that seemed completely far-fetched. I knew from a young age that I wanted to study marine biology and live near the ocean and my parents were convinced it was just a phase that I would grow out of. 

I have lived in Florida for 7 years now and the ocean is a part of me. The sea brings a sense of peace and tranquility that is second to none. Through life’s struggles, obstacles, grief and hard times, I find myself turning to the sea. You never truly understand grief and the toll it takes on your body, mind and soul until it knocks on your door.  

Getting in the water at the reef is like diving into another world. There is something incredible and so special about being underwater in the silence.  Hearing nothing but parrotfish crunching on the coral and your own breath.

Since losing my boyfriend Jeff a year and a half ago, I also completely lost myself. I didn’t know what life was without my other half, or how to move forward. We always shared a love for the sea together, and I knew I had to focus on that — find that passion for adventure again and make him proud.  

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I moved down to the Florida Keys to be with Jeff, my pirate and other half. Here we built a life together based on love, adventure, lots of pizza and fresh fish, and our passion for the ocean. It has been more than a year now since he suddenly passed and each day has been a challenge. 

Throughout college and the following years, I focused my career predominantly in marine education, conservation and outreach interning at the Florida Aquarium and Loggerhead Marinelife Center, working at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, then moving south to the islands to be with Jeff. Here I began my career at Mote Marine Laboratory. Fast-forward to present day, I now assist with grant management at Mote, with a focus in coral restoration and research grants.

I have dreamed of connecting all of my passions into one greater goal and making a difference in our planet. With The Lanikai Mermaid, bringing awareness regarding environmental issues our oceans face is the sole purpose. (visit thelanikaimermaid.com for more on this mission.)

I have no idea what the future has in store, but I am doing my best to live each and every day to its fullest. The Keys lifestyle, full of sunsets, driving through our beautiful islands, adventuring through these blue waters we get to call our backyard and being one with nature will always hold a special place in my heart.    

MARIA LAUKAITIS

Educator, MarineLab, Key Largo

Maria Laukaitis is lead instructor, social media strategist, and teaching specialist at a marine science education nonprofit called MarineLab

I grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, so my childhood experiences with the water mostly focused on long days at the neighborhood pool until my hair turned green, and the occasional summer vacation to the beach. But I still loved the ocean from afar, and was amazed when I did my first scuba dive at 12 years old right here in Key Largo. I got my open water certification right after that but it mostly sat unused for the next decade. 

I pursued my undergraduate degree in the middle of the country at the University of Michigan. However, during my junior year, I was lucky enough to spend a semester abroad in New Zealand, where I was able to explore marine science more deeply. After visiting beautiful places like the famous Poor Knights Islands and the town of Kaikoura that is known for its marine mammals, I was eager to learn more about the ocean. 

I am the lead instructor, social media strategist, and teaching specialist at a marine science education nonprofit called MarineLab. We teach students from fifth grade through college age about marine ecology and conservation.

My favorite part of the job is seeing a student experience something new for the first time. It is so rewarding to watch a student fall in love with the ocean. And that is a huge component of MarineLab’s mission. Of course we hope that they remember some of the lessons we teach, but it is more important to me that they remember how the ocean makes them feel rather than being able to identify every fish at the reef.

As for ocean escapes, a quiet mangrove paddle is bliss for me. The mangroves are such an underrated snorkel as well, and I could spend hours floating through the mangrove habitat finding dwarf seahorses. 

My mission is really focused on helping people of all ages form an emotional connection with the ocean. Emotion creates the drive and lifelong passion we need as a community to take the practical steps for change. We fight for what we love.

Audrina Ennis runs and operates Shoreline Restoration Services. CONTRIBUTED

AUDRINA ENNIS

Owner, Shoreline Restoration Services, Islamorada

When I was a little girl my dad used to take me up and down the Oregon Coast during summer breaks. We did crabbing, I boogie-boarded, investigated tide pools, built sandcastles, and flew kites larger than I was while on the beach. It was there that I fell in love with the ocean. I developed a healthy respect for the power of water and realized how much our oceans provide for us as human beings. 

It wasn’t until I moved to Islamorada that I became aware of marine debris and the effects it was having on marine life and our community. So I started SRS. 

We chose to focus on removing marine debris that has been washed up on land or in mangroves because most anyone can participate and it doesn’t take a lot of human made resources. I estimate that we have collected about 80 tons of trash. Some of the issues we discuss during our cleanups are micro plastics and human consumption, ghost nets, derelict vessels and coral reefs. 

One of my favorite ocean escapes is Alligator Lighthouse. I can snorkel out there for hours. I also sneak on to one of our iconic oceanside resorts and watch the sun come up at least once a week. It keeps me centered and appreciative. 

My mission and SRS’ mission is to create awareness and educate people, to encourage people to make little changes that make a big impact.  We are making a continued effort to partner up with other like minded organizations because we believe that we can achieve more together than by ourselves. 

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