MLML in Baja

By Mike Foster (28 August 2015)

The vessel Makrele used by MLML for a number of cruises in the Gulf of California in 1969.

Warm seas, cardóns at the shore, whales, turtles, boobies, rhodoliths, naked rocks, fish tacos, crema de cacti – it is no surprise that the Gulf of California has long attracted MLML scientists. We follow the tradition of early Gulf adventures including the famous Ricketts and Steinbeck expedition, and the seaweed studies of E. Yale Dawson. Dawson is particularly noteworthy as he was affiliated with the Beaudette Foundation, precursor to MLML, which sponsored a number of expeditions to the Gulf using the chartered vessel Neptunus Rex. Early on the MLML created a course, “Ecology of the Gulf of California,” centered on a series of cruises in the Gulf on the ship Makrele in 1969. Among the students participating were Genny Bockus (now Anderson), Shane Anderson, Jim Houk, Jim Norris, Don Wobber and Dave Mayer who all went on to notable careers in marine science.

The completion of the Baja Trans-peninsular Highway in 1973 greatly improved vehicle access to the Gulf and Pacific Baja, stimulating various informal expeditions by MLML faculty Greg Cailliet (sharks), Jim Harvey (whales), John Oliver (whale feeding) and Bernd Würsig (marine mammals). As is the MLML tradition, numerous students were included.

Baja field camp near La Paz

I became Baja bound in 1989 as the result of a phone call from Diana Steller, calling from Mulegé and asking if I knew anything about subtidal beds of purple-pink balls she had discovered while snorkeling in Bahía Concepción. It turned out these were rhodoliths, free-living non-geniculate coralline algae. Dawson had previously published on their taxonomy in the Gulf but little was known about their distribution and ecology in Baja or elsewhere in the world. Sounded interesting and I needed a break from the post-earthquake MLML blues. So it began – trips with other grad student volunteers to help with what became Diana’s MS theses on rhodolith bed ecology. This led to re-establishing the Gulf of California ecology course, now led by Diana, that includes various biological and geological studies depending on faculty interest, with a number of students going on to do their MS theses in Baja.

A highlight has been a collaboration with Rafael Riosmena Rodríguez that began in 1994-95 when I was on a Fulbright at Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur in La Paz. Rafael, now a professor at UABCS, subsequently came to MLML to do his MS on rhodolith taxonomy, went on to a PhD in Australia, and continues to collaborate on research in Baja. His students have frequently joined the MLML Baja class and various research projects. The collaboration also led to founding the International Rhodolith Workshop that convenes every three years, the 5th held in Costa Rica in 2015.

Joint MLML/UABCS Baja Class in Bahía Concepción

Part of the success of these forays into Baja is due  to John Douglas (JD) and the rest of the Marine Ops staff who made sure the outboards and boats performed well, and who provided mandatory maintenance lectures if they returned abused.

No doubt MLML Baja adventures will continue with good science, collaboration, and excellent crema de cacti.



MLML Research Vessels

By Mike Prince (21 August 2015)

MLML Fleet circa 2010: Whalers, Bay Whaler, Sheila B, John Martin, and R/V Point Sur

Moss Landing Marine Labs has always been about providing our students with research experiences in the field, which for them is at sea, or in estuaries and bays like Elkhorn Slough, Stillwater cove in Carmel Bay, San Francisco Bay and Delta and far flung locations like the Gulf of California and Antarctica.   Our students conduct their own class projects, Thesis research projects and benefit by supporting and participating in research projects conducted by our Faculty and associated researchers. One important way that MLML has supported these objectives has been through the maintenance and operation of a fleet of Research Vessels and small boats.


MLML students deploying CTD on R/V Point Sur

Our former Director, Dr. Kenneth Coale says it well.

MLML students processing Multi-Core sample on R/V Point Sur

“The mission of the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories has been to provision the pioneers of the future.  This means that we deliver our students safely into the marine environment; with the physical and intellectual resources they need to push back the frontiers of science.  Some need only a pair of waders and a quadrat, others a SCUBA tank and a meter tape, others a submarine, still others an aircraft.  Many have relied upon our fleet of research vessels that have safely conveyed our students, faculty and staff above the waters, so that they could peer below it's surface.  It is this fleet that has distinguished us from other institutions and because our needs are so varied, our fleet has represented a diversity varying from simple kayaks to NSF regional class research vessels over 500 tons. This fleet is unparalleled in any other Masters program.  Where this fleet has not met our needs, the National Science Foundation, NOAA and the Office of Naval Research have provided additional opportunities on icebreakers, global class vessels and submarines.”



My own employment with MLML started as a crewmember in the Research Vessel Cayuse in 1980, but there were several vessels that pre-date the Cayuse. I will cover some “sea stories” about some of our vessels in more detail in subsequent blogs. This piece will focus on an overview of our fleet and the vessels that have called our docks their homeport. I encourage you to comment with any sea stories, memories, or additions you might want to share.

MLML also maintains a fleet of small boats, inflatables and kayaks including the very imaginatively named White, Blue and Navy Whalers, the Slough Boat and the Orange RHIB along with many others over the years. Some were well outfitted for work in Monterey Bay and near coastal waters such as the R/V Ridgeway and the Bay Whaler while others such as the smaller whalers and the Slough boat are very basic stable platforms suited for the shallow waters of the Elkhorn Slough. Trailerable inflatables and whalers allowed for diving and field work anywhere along the coast and as far away as Baja California.

R/V Ridgway (upper left), Blue and White Whalers (upper center), sampling kelp via kayak (upper right), White whaler in Stillwater Cove (lower left), RHIB in front of R/V John Martin (lower center), and inflatable in Monterey Bay (lower right).

With the retirement of the R/V Point Sur from the UNOLS fleet and the sale to the University of Southern Mississippi this year our Marine Operations program is in a state of transition. We still operate the R/V John Martin, R/V Sheila B, and the many smaller boats. We are looking for opportunities to continue getting our students to sea on larger sea-going research vessels and also for the resources and opportunities to acquire a new vessel to support the important educational and research programs at MLML. Any good ideas are welcome!


We just recently added another vessel to the fleet. The R/V Tombolo is a 24-feet Munson Packcat outboard motor boat that was donated to MLML by Kathy Dickinson. It is presently located in Puget Sound, and is operated by Gary Greene, MLML Emeritus faculty member.


The R/V Tombolo with Kathy Dickinson (donor) and Gary Greene (MLML Emeritus Faculty) is pictured tied off to a dock in Puget Sound where it is being used for various projects.
R/V Point Sur departs Moss Landing harbor for the last time.


Those That Used the Hill Before Us

By Jim Harvey (7 August 2015)

The hill that MLML occupies today was part of a dune field that became exposed as the last glacial period ended 12,000 years ago when sea level was 420 feet lower. About 8,000 years ago, Native Americans first arrived on the hill and they brought with them organics that increased nutrients in the soil and fertilized the plants. The people of the region around Elkhorn Slough have been called Calendaru (people of “Bay Houses”), used the Ohlone language, and were known as Costanoan by the Spaniards (Fig. 1).

The Native Americans inhabiting the area around Elkhorn Slough were hunter gathers; hunting deer, elk, sea otter, sea lions, geese, quail, ducks, robins, rabbits, shellfish, and fish and gathering herbs, seeds, and acorns. The more interesting animals they harvested, at least to me as a marine mammalogist, were northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) pups (Fig. 2). The fact that pups were taken indicated that a rookery existed in Moss Landing area from 5,000 to 1,000 years ago (Burton et al. 2001). Northern fur seals do not have any mainland breeding areas today likely because of past hunting by Native Americans. We know the foraging habits of the Native Americans on the hill because there exists a large archeological site (CA-MNT-234) just to the leeward side of the hill (Breschini and Haversat 1995).

In preparation for obtaining permits to build MLML on the hill, MLML funded a study of the prehistoric resources at the site. The Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc. conducted a thorough examination of the site and made recommendations for preservation. Their report details the incredible flora and fauna use by the Natives of this area (Fig. 3).


The Native Americans placed their main encampment on the leeward side of the hill and likely used the site seasonally to capture food in the nearby slough and coastal environment. Now MLML occupies the site, the building is on the windward side (to capture the views of the ocean and keep the building out of view from the landward side), the volleyball court is on the leeward side, and occupants of the new MLML building capture specimens year round in Elkhorn Slough and the coastal environment. We also share the Native American’s respect and awe for the place we occupy.


Those That Used the Hill Before Us: Part II

By Jim Harvey (12 August 2015)

If you come to the main lab of MLML today you see a spectacular building (LEED Gold certified), with amazing views, and well-outfitted teaching and research spaces. What you don’t see is that there are two large cement foundation slabs and one smaller one nestled under the cypress and eucalyptus trees just to your right as you come up the hill (Fig. 1).

Figure 1. In the foreground are the cement footings for the kitchen of the African-American 54th Coast Artillery Regiment encampment on the hill at Moss Landing, with the north wing of the current MLML main lab in the background.

“In the days immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States military scrambled to provide personnel for the protection of America’s vast unguarded coastlines from incursion by Axis powers” (Breschini et al. 1996). In April or May 1942, the all-black 54th Coast Artillery Regiment arrived under cover of darkness to establish an encampment on the hill where MLML now resides (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Personnel and one of the four WWI French 155mm guns of the 54th Coast Artillery Regiment on the hill at Moss Landing (sometime between 1942 and 1944).

Lou Calcagno (former Monterey County Supervisor and supporter of MLML) remembered that there were five buildings in the grove of trees, and the four gun emplacements were dug into the sand at the crest of the hill, at the location of the future water tower. The 54th had arrived to protect the central CA coast, and remained on the hill at Moss Landing until mid 1944.

At the end of WWII, the Sandholdt family came into possession of the buildings, and they were eventually sold and moved off the property. During the archeological dig before the new MLML building was constructed they found shell casings, military dog tags, and a large pile of catsup bottles, a testament to the cuisine of the 54th.  Amazing history on this hill.