Marine Sanctuaries Celebrate 50th Anniversary With Colorful Posters

The hope is the art will inspire more people to visit and protect these sites.

NOAA marine sanctuaries posters

NOAA Office of Marine Sanctuaries

From the Florida Keys to the Hawaiian Islands, the national marine sanctuaries are underwater parks that protect natural and cultural marine resources in the United States. The marine system is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and is celebrating with commemorative posters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries protects a network of underwater parks covering more than 600,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters. They include 15 national marine sanctuaries and two national monuments.

To commemorate the milestone anniversary, NOAA is releasing a series of commemorative posters for all the marine sanctuaries, as well as Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Each poster features original artwork on the front and key details about the site on the flip side.

Five posters have been produced so far and a new poster will be released each month through the end of the year.

Matt McIntosh, the senior graphics designer for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, spoke with Treehugger about the inspiration behind the posters, how each site’s personality was captured, and how he hopes the posters will encourage people to go exploring. 

What was your inspiration for the poster style?

Matt McIntosh: The inspiration behind these posters is most definitely the national park posters that were created in the 1930s and 1940s as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Originally, I was planning to mimic the exact look and feel of the iconic park posters so the public could make the connection that sanctuaries are similar to national parks, only that they’re underwater. But the national park posters were printed using a silkscreen process, which gave the art a beautiful but simplistic look and feel, and I quickly realized that I needed much more detail in the sanctuary posters. 

The national parks have the benefit of depicting terrestrial scenes, which in most cases can be visually implied since everyone already has a firm concept of what's being portrayed and can mentally fill in any missing details. The critters and elements in the underwater world aren’t as solidly visually imprinted in the minds of the general public, so I felt that the detail was required to show just how spectacular each underwater animal and critter is, as well as to depict the breathtaking beauty and uniqueness of each individual sanctuary.

How did you work to capture each marine sanctuary’s personality?

I’ve worked for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries for 15 years. I started as a graphic designer and spent years searching, collecting, and manipulating underwater photos for all sorts of communication products (exhibits, websites, videos, brochures, publications, etc.). All that time studying photos gave me a great sense of each sanctuary's differences. I also surround myself with site-specific photographs of sanctuary seascapes and critters while I design the posters, as well as watch underwater video that was captured at the site.

Were any locations more challenging (or easier) than others to depict? 

The sanctuaries that I have visited are much easier to design. Nothing beats having memories of exactly how each sanctuary felt; how the waves and kelp swayed, how the air and atmosphere behave during different parts of the day, how each sanctuary has unique smells, how the sun felt intense or weak, how animals reacted to the rain, how fog descends on the water surface, chills the bones, quiets everything, and projects a somewhat ominous feeling, how the currents and tides move, how the water in each sanctuary has a different color and nutrients, how in some sanctuaries you can see a good distance underwater or barely see your own hand in others, how you can’t stop thinking about the threat of sharks, real or imagined, or how the water feels light, joyous and fun because of energetic and playful seals. 

The art for those posters comes with great ease and it’s like they design themselves. For the sites I haven’t visited, I often find myself spending more time than I’d like studying videos and photographs of the sanctuary in an attempt to get the poster to look right.

What is your personal interest in nature and science? What aspects fascinate you the most? Have you visited many of these locations?

I’ve always loved the outdoors, science, and the environment. As a young kid, I’d spend all my free time in the woods, and on several occasions, I brought home injured animals. My family would either take them to a local wildlife rehabilitation center, or we’d nurse them back to health ourselves if the animal was a small bird or tiny creature. 

As an adult, I like to get outdoors as much as I can. I take my kids to local state parks and I like to go backpacking in national parks. I’ve also been to 11 sanctuaries, and some of the visits have even been on my own dime as family vacations. I feel fortunate that scientists trust me to figure out how to visually communicate their work on nature and science in easily understandable visuals, and I’m surprised and fascinated by the new things I’m still learning after all these years. The ocean is amazing in that way; it still holds so many secrets. 

What do you hope the posters inspire people to do?

I like to compare sanctuaries to national parks even though there are some differences other than water vs. land. Telling someone that ‘a sanctuary is similar to a national park, except that it's underwater’ is my go-to line when someone asks what one is. It’s a really quick, easy, and maybe even lazy, way to explain it. But it’s a bummer that I have to explain it at all. I wish sanctuaries were just as famous as national parks. 

We have a tiny fraction of the national parks’ communication budget, but sanctuaries encompass more area, are just as gorgeous, and arguably, just as important for the health of this blue planet. With that said, my goal is ambitious, perhaps even unattainable, but I hope, with a limited budget to promote them, that the posters go viral and/or grab as much attention as possible. The National Marine Sanctuary System will be 50 years old in October and I hope these posters inspire more people to want to learn, care and protect these special places.

You can download digital copies of the posters or request printed posters through the NOAA Outreach Center at

View Article Sources
  1. "Celebrating 50 Years." National Marine Sanctuaries.

  2. "National Marine Sanctuary Frequently Asked Questions." National Marine Sanctuaries.