Margo Pellegrino Paddles The Pacific
Photo: Robert Zaleski

Margo Pellegrino’s life changed in 2007 when she read 50 Ways to Save the Ocean by David Helvarg, the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a nonprofit movement dedicated to raising awareness for ocean-related environmental issues. After reading about the jaw-dropping human caused impacts that are killing the seas—pollution from plastics, fertilizers and sewage, chemical changes from a warming climate, and the loss of biological diversity due to overfishing—Pellegrino, 43, decided to make cleaning up the ocean her lifelong cause.

She vowed to deliver Blue Frontier’s conservation message to the American public, one paddle stroke at a time. The stay-at-home mom from Medford Lakes, N.J., embarked on three epics by outrigger canoe: from Miami to Maine on the Atlantic, from Miami to New Orleans via the Gulf of Mexico, and finally, along the Pacific coast from Seattle to San Diego.

Pellegrino’s West Coast expedition was by far her most ambitious. In July, when she launched her 21-foot outrigger canoe into the waters of Puget Sound, near Seattle, she had her doubts. She wondered about how she’d handle the notorious surf of the Washington coast and the fickle river mouth sandbars of Oregon. So she enlisted the shore support of June Barnard, a San Francisco-based Blue Frontier advocate, and the pair forged a friendship amid the gnarly coastal conditions. They waited out a week of heavy surf in Newport, Ore., and were shorebound another four days in Bandon, Ore.—all the while enduring unseasonably cool temperatures.

The pair’s Thelma and Louise-like trip involved stops at coastal communities to discuss the impacts that humans impose on the world’s oceans. Barnard was surprised by the public’s response. “Even after bending their ear, people were warm and receptive,” she says. “In a time when we feel so divided as a nation, to go along the coast for 11 weeks and be helped and supported by so many was inspiring.”

Ecologically rich areas like California’s Monterey Bay buoyed their hopes, as did places like Dana Point, Calif., where Pellegrino notes the harbor’s role in capturing runoff to prevent harmful algae blooms. Still, they were shocked to see the heavy silt deposits at Oregon river mouths—the result of logging inland forests. The loss of groundcover causes soil to wash into the rivers, adversely impacting salmon and endangering their navigation. “No matter how far inland you are, the ocean is important to life,” Pellegrino insists, emphasizing the effect of development and lifestyle choices of people in both coastal and inland areas on the ocean. “There’s a real need for people to realize what we’re doing to it while we still have a chance to act.”

Pellegrino’s journey ended in mid-September at San Diego’s Ocean Beach. If nothing else, her courage speaks to an individual’s ability to influence change. Says Barnard, “She’s got cojones to do what she’s doing.”

— Conor Mihell