Michele Donihe Legernes ’09

Protecting Oceans, Educating the Public and Staying True to Her Passion
“Never lose compassion.” 

Michele Donihe Legernes ’09 says that message has resonated with her recently. She first heard it while job shadowing through GPS in a hospital setting. After talking with a patient about the job-shadowing experience, the patient shared that piece of wisdom. 

The message came full circle when, in April 2019, Legernes, who is cofounder of the Zing Ocean Conservancy and living and working in Norway, spoke with a seventh-grade GPS class about marine ecology, her field of graduate studies and line of work. A student said she wanted to be a naturalist and asked how to do that. 

Echoing those words from her own GPS experience, Legernes’ answer was clear: “Don’t lose sight of why you entered that field in the first place.”

From the Caribbean to Northern Norway

Speaking with students is only one aspect of Legernes’ job these days. As cofounder of Zing Ocean Conservancy, Legernes, with her husband and fellow Zing cofounder, spends most of her time leading public trash cleanup trips. After receiving her master’s in marine ecology in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Legernes and her husband were driven to respond to the alarming amount of trash littering beaches on the island. Both marine life enthusiasts and professionals, the Legernes were eager to make beach cleanup efforts not just rewarding but fun. 

“The island looked pristine with beautiful water and amazing mountains,” Legernes says. “But if you looked beyond the tourist attractions, it was trashed. There wasn’t a trash management system in place. We were eager to educate people about the marine environment and start fun beach clean-ups.” 

Zing: An Enthusiastic Attitude About Hard Work

The fun and relaxed attitude about beach cleanups has remained with Legernes and Zing Ocean Conservancy, even though their location has changed. Now living in Norway, her husband’s home country, she spends time with tourism boating operations leading island cleanups. She says the islands are similar to the Caribbean, but much colder. 

“We’ve received government funding for a yearlong project with boat tourism companies that enables us to lead volunteer cleanups on remote island,” Legernes says. “There’s a shock factor when people see the amount of trash in these marine sanctuaries.”

While cleanups are hard and the shock of seeing trash in such special places can be overwhelming, Legernes is optimistic about the future. After what can be a physically demanding clean-up, she hears from people around the world on these tours who are passionate about this work. 

“We want to show people what’s out there and get them thinking about how to protect this space,” Legernes says. The greatest satisfaction is hearing from past participants who are eager to change their lifestyle and habits to avoid single-use plastic, a main contributor to trash found in marine landscapes. 

Amid the work and challenge of cleanups, where they pick up a ton of trash every trip, Legernes remains connected to the heart of her mission—her passion for being out in nature and understanding the human factor in the biology and environment of animals she studies. When they’re not leading cleanups, Legernes and her husband spend time in and around the water, swimming with animals, whether orcas or sharks, or fishing. As a captain and skipper, and outdoor enthusiasts, they hope to one day sail around the world. 

Near or far, Legernes feels grounded by the start she had at GPS where she was inspired to think and learn.

“My love for science certainly started at GPS,” Legernes says. “Our marine biology class went to the Keys, where I first earned my SCUBA certification. The relationships I had with teachers was amazing. They always went above and beyond. They treated us like adults and were interested in us growing as human beings.”