Longtime Seattle Aquarium volunteer retires from NOAA after 30 years

Orlay Johnson, Volunteer Diver at the Seattle Aquarium
Orlay Johnson, Volunteer Diver at the Seattle Aquarium


Orlay Johnson has been involved with the Seattle Aquarium for the past 32 years: first as a volunteer, then as a staff member (in a now-defunct position called “Tour Guide”), and again as a volunteer after he began his 30-year career at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Orlay recently retired from NOAA at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about his early days with the Aquarium—and his experiences as a volunteer, both in and out of the water.

Q: What was the Aquarium like back then?

A: The Aquarium was a magical place to me in those days. It was brand new and I believe, the first U.S. aquarium to use the theme plan, so that visitors, instead of just looking at fish tanks, moved through themed displays starting with how animals were adapted to different habitats, examples of those adaptations in Puget Sound, then to a touch tank, followed by a sandy beach, rocky shore, and then underwater rock cliffs with diving sea birds, into Puget Sound Fishes, the Dome, marine mammals, and finishing with a display where it all starts in a mountain stream.

The idea was new and exciting in 1980. At about this time the Aquarium began designing the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit. The idea was to recreate an actual location in the South Pacific and I got to spend hours researching Pacific coral reefs and helping to make sculptures of the coral heads. One of the most enjoyable things I've ever done.

Q: What inspired you to start volunteering at the Aquarium?

A: I had been an Explorer Scout at the NOAA Sandy Hook Marine Lab in New Jersey and taken classes at Friday Harbor Marine Lab and loved both experiences. So volunteering at the Seattle Aquarium seemed natural.

It was a lot easier to volunteer back then: I applied, they said yes, and I started volunteering the next week on Sunday evenings, feeding birds and fish (under staff biologist Marla Tullio) before I drove back to Lopez Island where I was teaching high school. When I moved back to Seattle, I continued with that and also volunteered during the day to help build the Pacific Coral Reef exhibit, teach classes and just hang out. At some point I was asked if I'd like a job in Education and I said yes, so I started working as a "Tour Guide" and then became the first "Marine Education Specialist." I actually wrote the job description, so I was kind of proud of it.

Orlay getting ready for a dive in the Underwater Dome
Orlay getting ready for a dive in the Underwater Dome


I think I also began diving in the Dome around 1980. When I was hired on staff, I was also responsible for doing our SCUBA collections of animals used in the education classes and in the touch tank. At some point I was told I could no longer dive in the Dome as I was now an employee and only volunteers could dive. When I left my staff position, I started to dive in the Dome again.

Q: What’s your favorite area to volunteer in?

I've enjoyed everywhere I've volunteered including diving in the Underwater Dome and Pacific Coral Reef exhibits, education classes, tours, feeding the diving birds…what I enjoy most is the camaraderie and support of the staff and other volunteers.

Orlay Johnson with another volunteer diver
Orlay Johnson with another volunteer diver


Look for Orlay in the Underwater Dome exhibit on an upcoming visit to the Aquarium!


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