This advisor's favorite pastime is saving marine mammals and returning them to the wild.
By Karen DeMasters
During office hours, Katherine Simmonds, CFP, helps
manage $625 million in assets as director of investment planning at
Brouwer & Janachowski Inc. in Tiburon, Calif. She advises
high-net-worth people, in her case mostly lawyers, on how to spend and
invest their money, and she loves working with people and helping them
become financially secure.
But once in a while she tires of people. Her anecdote for that is to spend weekends and other free time rescuing sea lions, elephant seals and other marine mammals, and taking people on tours of the elephant seal rookeries at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, the largest mainland breeding colony in the world for northern elephant seals.
Her love of marine mammals was born on a whale-watching trip off the coast of Maine, which she took when she was young, but her active involvement in the lives of the creatures was delayed for many years. Simmonds held senior positions in several federal government offices, including the Office of Management and Budget and the Executive Office of the President in Washington, D.C. She also spent more than ten years running a financial advisory practice affiliated with the Mass Mutual Financial Group in Washington, before relocating to California and joining Kurt Brouwer and Steve Janachowski as one of the firm's three relationship managers. She now travels extensively, advising partners and shareholders in large law firms around the country.
But her off hours are spent with marine mammals, including some endangered species that are beginning to make a comeback. "I literally stumbled on The Marine Mammal Center [www.tmmc.org] in Sausalito and I watched the people caring for the seals. I had never worked with animals, either domestic or wild, but a docent said I could volunteer and I thought it would be a great opportunity," Simmonds remembers.
When she decided to take a sabbatical from work, she volunteered at the center, which is one of the largest marine mammal rescue centers in the world. She started working with orphaned elephant seal pups and other marine mammals that were washed up on shore. "You tube feed the pups until you can teach them to eat fish, which is fun. At first they want to play with the fish. They don't understand they are supposed to eat them. I also helped clean pens, weigh the seals and transport them to surgery," she says.
Her first rescue was a sea lion found near where actor Robin Williams lives, which the rescuers named Mork. More than 60% of the mammals that are brought to the center are released into the wild again. "Only ones that are too sick are not released. It's sad. One in five we get suffers from gunshot wounds. One was shot with an arrow," she says.
"Releasing the animals is the best part. Usually we release several marine mammals at a time. On one release, we had five juvenile sea lions. When we reached the release location at Chimney Rock at Point Reyes, we hauled out all five carriers, lined them up facing the seashore, counted to three and opened the doors.
"Usually the sea lions are a little startled and it takes a few minutes for them to figure out they are supposed to get out. On this release, they started to move toward the shore when three of them turned around to look back at us, as if to say, "Is this right? Is it safe?' As soon as one or two make it to the water, the rest usually follow, except this time, one fellow had to be literally pushed into the water," she remembers.
"Once in, they are quick to be on their way. It is wonderful to watch them as they swim out to sea. It is a magical moment you never forget."
The task of rescuing marine mammals can be strenuous and sometimes dangerous. Rescuers have to surprise the animal and cover it with a net to get it into a large carrier, which then often has to be hauled up cliffs that line the northern California coast.
"Sea lions are amazing animals. They can always detect where your weak spots are-if you are nervous or not watching-and they will try to outwit you whenever they can," she explains. "But it is all worth it when we get them safely back to the center and their treatment begins."
The center works with a variety of different marine mammals, including elephant seals, northern and southern sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, fur seals, harbor porpoises, sea turtles, and even whales when they become entangled in manmade objects or try to wander up the tributaries.
"One elephant seal hauled itself up on the beach with a toilet seat around its neck. It was literally being strangled until we removed the toilet seat," Simmonds says.
Shelbi Stoudt, stranding manager at the Marine Mammal Center who helped train Simmonds, explains, "We have a lot of people from outside the realm of animals who volunteer, partly because it is so different from what they do in daily life. We have everyone from students to business folks to people from Silicon Valley to retired people who help here."
Simmonds has expanded her animal work at the center and also volunteers as a docent at Ano Nuevo State Reserve, a preserved wildlife area famous for the number of elephant seals that come on shore in the winter to mate and have pups. From December through March only guided tours of the rookery are allowed because of the sensitivity of the animals during breeding season. At other times, people can visit on their own under the watchful eyes of the docents.
Ano Nuevo State Park Ranger Ziad Bawarshi explains, "Our park would not be able to operate without the volunteer docent naturalists. They lead 26 guided walks a day to the rookery. That means up to 500 people a day get the opportunity to view the seals mating and breeding. Being able to be within a few feet of two 5,000-pound bull elephant seals fighting over a female has got to be one of the best wildlife experiences in North America."
Becoming a docent takes intensive and time-consuming training, including a 12-week class that meets twice a week. When successfully completed, the docents can take visitors to within 25 feet of the mating seals. [For more information on becoming a docent, visit the Web site www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=886.
"We get 25 to 30 new docents a year and we are now able to do outreach programs into the schools. People need to understand an environment in order to appreciate it and protect it. A lot of the tours are schoolchildren. They are the ones who are going to be making the policy decisions in the future," Bawarshi says. "Katherine always seems happy to be here and she is very good at communicating with a group and interpreting the park. She is good at determining what people want to learn about."
For Simmonds, the work is almost spiritual in nature.
"It nourishes my soul. People on the tours often ask if I am a marine biologist and when I say, 'No, I am a financial advisor,' it sort of stumps them," Simmonds says. "I like being able to interpret nature for people and bring them something they never had before. I hope they leave here with an appreciation of nature and of the importance of protecting it."
In addition to the protected reserve on the mainland, where the elephant seals mate and give birth, Ano Nuevo also encompasses an island just off the coast that is home to endangered species such as the Steller sea lion, some of which are making a comeback because of the efforts of conservationists.
"This is the southern most part of the Steller sea lions' range now. They used to breed on the island, but they had not been here for many years. Then a Steller sea lion pup was rescued in 1999 and named Artimis, after the Greek goddess. She was released to the Ano Nuevo Island and last year we came upon a sea lion with a pup and it was Artimis. That was the first pup born there in many years," Simmonds explained.
Simmonds personal life is also tied to the State Reserve since she met her husband, Peter Metropulos, an ornithologist, while taking one of his bird classes through the Reserve. Now they are both active birders and conservationists. Her work with marine mammals also is entwined with her profession.
"It is a great story that I use in my work because people need to establish who you are and they want to know what is important to you before they trust your advice," Simmonds says. "We get to do private tours and I take my clients and colleagues on tour. It is a wonderful treat for them."