Medford Lakes activist has canoed from Miami to Maine to Washington, sounding alarm about the environment.
"It was really foul," Pellegrino recalled at her Medford Lakes home with daughter Julia, 3, in her lap. "I'm really concerned about the future of the oceans' resources and what impact their health will have on my children's well-being."
Her distress prompted Pellegrino, 41, to paddle nearly 2,000 miles in 2007 and 500 miles this summer to spotlight threats to the ocean. For her advocacy efforts, she will be honored by Monmouth University's Urban Coast Institute this month.
"Part of our challenge with the ocean is getting people to think about it. You look at the surface and it looks fine," said Sarah Chasis, ocean-initiative director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an advocacy group that sponsored Pellegrino's 2008 trip.
"An individual stepping out like [Pellegrino did] can really make a difference," Chasis said.
Pellegrino paddled intercoastal waterways from Miami to Camden, Maine, in 2007. This summer - while traveling an inland route from Long Beach Island through North Jersey, down the Delaware River to the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River - she collected citizen "SOS" messages, for "Save Our Seas," to deliver to Congress.
"People from all walks of life were totally on board with the ocean message," she said.
The Urban Coast Institute in West Long Branch will honor Pellegrino as its volunteer of the year on Oct. 30. Retiring U.S. Rep. James Saxton (R., N.J.) also will receive an award for legislation over his 13 terms on marine-wildlife protection and fisheries and coastal management.
"She's a unique example of someone who's been able to take personal action and turn it into community action," institute director Tony MacDonald said of Pellegrino.
The Urban Coast Institute was founded three years ago as Monmouth University redefined its mission, MacDonald said. Drawing on its location only a mile from the beach, the school established a degree program incorporating marine biology and policy and a think tank to support it. The institute now holds an annual symposium, which recognizes leadership on ocean issues.
Pellegrino "is not a professional athlete. She's not a scientist. She's a stay-at-home mother of two small children whose love for the ocean and concern about its decline has driven her to jump in her outrigger canoe and speak for the seas," Chasis said. The council nominated Pellegrino for the Monmouth award.
In 2003 and 2004, the nonpartisan Joint Ocean Commission Initiative declared the world's oceans to be in crisis and began pushing for more coordinated ocean governance than could be found in the 140 laws spread over 18 agencies. Though some changes have been made, last month the commission issued a long "to do" list for the next administration.
Pellegrino was in Washington last month, preparing for a spring conference on the issues that prompted her paddling: depleted fisheries, rampant algae blooms, overflowing sewers, climate change and, more recently, offshore drilling.
She found plastic bottles littering inland waters, especially on the Delaware & Raritan Canal near Trenton.
"Why are we talking about [offshore] drilling before the entire country is recycling?" Pellegrino asked. She believes many Americans' priorities are misplaced: There are better uses for oil than manufacturing plastic water bottles "and putting it in our cars," she said.
Pellegrino prefers biking around Medford Lakes, where she lives in a log house with husband Carl, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency. She walks her son, Billy, 6, to school daily.
She became serious about ocean paddling in the summer of 2004, when flooding after a massive storm breached dams in Burlington County.
"I took a kayak out on the ocean and I was hooked," she said.
Pellegrino trained for the 10- to 35-mile paddling days required for her Florida-to-Maine trip by rowing on the Mullica River, running and swimming.
But she couldn't anticipate everything. The day Pellegrino launched in Miami, Tropical Depression Andrea - the first named May storm in 25 years - struck the Florida coast.
"Before the sunrise came, the winds were really bad," said T. J. Marshall, coordinator of the Florida Coastal and Ocean Coalition. "Reporters were telling her, 'Margo, don't go.' But she was determined."
"People expect us surfers to go out in hurricane waves, but not a woman in an outrigger canoe," said Marshall, a member of the Surfrider Foundation, an ocean advocacy group California surfers founded in 1984.
Other perils along the 2,000-mile intercoastal journey included a couple of sharks "who look like sticks coming at you in the water," Pellegrino said, and power boaters, including former President George H. W. Bush and his security detail near Kennebunkport, Maine.
"Anytime it got ugly, I just kept going," Pellegrino said. "You can't afford the luxury of panic."
On both trips, Pellegrino stayed with friends, relatives, and volunteers from environmental and rowing groups. She blogged along the way (www.miami2maine.com andhttp://oceans.nrdc.org/canoeingtocongress).
Next up is a Gulf of Mexico-Everglades paddle in April and a Pacific Coast journey after that.