The MLML Puppet Show at Open House

By Erin Loury (28 September 2015)

Open House is one of my favorite memories of Moss Landing Marine laboratories, and my favorite memory of Open House by far is the puppet show. Puppet show? You could see the skepticism on the faces of some adults and teenagers hearing about this must-see event at a marine lab! But by the end of each day, word of mouth had spread, and many a parent told me they enjoyed the show as much as their kids. I think the puppet show really captures the whole spirit of the MLML Open House: the ocean is an amazing place, and anyone can enjoy learning about it.

Puppet show 2012.


I puppeted four shows at MLML between 2008 and 2011, and it became an event near to my heart. It was a chance for hardworking scientists-by-day to unleash a creative streak, and to become performing stars for a weekend. The shows were always a big group production, with numerous students and staff pitching in their various talents, whether it was writing songs, painting elaborate backdrops, stitching up new puppets, or rigging others with blinking lights. It’s seriously impressive how much artistic expression can be squeezed out of the personnel of a marine lab!

A puppet show is a pretty sneaky way for slipping a healthy dose of science into entertainment, whether it was about fish life history or taxonomy, the vertical migration of plankton, or adaptations in the intertidal or deep sea. We added corny jokes at every opportunity, and packed in as many marine science-y references as we could manage. Talking about Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle? Perfect time for Snoopy to make an appearance. Got a chiton on stage? Cue the song “Low Rider.” I could go on…

This 2014 show highlighted the continuing work on ballast water conducted by Nick Welschmeyer's lab.

Here is a link to a video of the 2014 Puppet Show on Ballast Water:

The shows took place behind a simple wooden stage that has been used for years (and which we somehow always forgot how to assemble), but we really snazzed it up with handcrafted backdrops. During my first puppet show, one of the veteran performers was set on a crazy idea: a rotating backdrop that would take our protagonist Rocky the Rockfish through a series of random locations, from Paris, to Surf City Coffee, to Sponge Bob’s pineapple under the sea, on his journey from the open ocean to the kelp forest. Somehow we managed to pull it off, thanks to some great in-house artistic talent and crude engineering. And suddenly the puppet show production bar had been raised.

Puppet show 2012.



The plots of the show seemed to get more elaborate every year, and the backdrops along with them. There was the year we traveled through the pipe system into the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then back out to sea, and the year we went 3D and constructed an intertidal zone covered with egg carton barnacles and cellophane seaweed. Backdrop crafting was a group event, and even if most students had no desire to perform in front of a crowd, they could usually be roped into painting a kelp forest for an hour or two. Call it paint therapy.

An example of the well-crafted puppets.

As Open House drew nearer, I always seemed to have the puppet show on the brain. One year, our villain the evil sea star needed a shrink ray for threatening to take over the world (naturally). While cleaning up in the seminar room kitchen one afternoon, I noticed a drain snake lying next to the sink. Shrink ray found. I’ll never forget the look on caretaker Billy Cochran’s face when I asked him if I could borrow it for the puppet show. I think it made an appearance two years in a row.

But what really made the puppet show such a knockout were the songs. Every year we’d write new science parodies to popular tunes (and also sometimes recycled a few of our favorites). Bon Jovi could always be counted on for a show-stopping ballad—there was “Vertical Migration” about plankton set to “Living on a Prayer” (it worked somehow), and “Don’t Stop Clinging” about animals of the intertidal set to “Don’t Stop–“ well, you know how it goes

The 2014 MLML Puppet Show on ballast water, with the dancing jellyfish.

I have to say our most impressive lyrical feat was penning a song called “Chemoautotrophy” about deepsea tubeworms set to Beyonce’s “All the Single Ladies.” It was one of those songs that seemed to write itself while we sat batting around ideas in the student lounge. I will always love the audience that broke into applause as we did our best imitation of Beyonce’s signature moves while performing it.

After weeks of preparation, our labor of love paid off when show time came. We’d parade down the halls during Open House with a giant jellyfish umbrella to round up an audience. Often we returned with a trail of young fans behind us—repeat attendees who just couldn’t get enough of our silly antics. The first show was never quite polished, as we still worked out the kinks, but it improved throughout the three shows we did each day—sometimes followed by an encore performance thanks to popular demand.

Advertising the puppet show are Diane Wyse as the jellyfish and Marilyn Cruickshank as the squid in April 2012.


The greatest feeling was peeking out behind the curtain before a show and seeing it was standing room only. During the best performances, it was sheer electricity backstage. We fed off the energy of our young and enthusiastic audience members, usually sitting in the front row. We would mouth along to our favorite jokes and wait for the laughs that (usually) followed. While we pinned the script to the back of the curtain, we often managed to lose our places while reading lines, which earned a few extra laughs. And when the music started up, we’d rush out from behind the curtain to belt out our song-and-dance numbers. It doesn’t get much better than playing air guitar while singing about copepods.

The audience in the new seminar room from the perspective of the performers.

While the shows were incredibly fun, they could also make a more lasting impression. I was stunned when a fellow student told me that after watching all of our performances, her daughter knew all the words to a song about rockfish taxonomy. It was called “Scorpaena guttata,” which is the scientific name of the California scorpion fish, set to the Lion King’s “Hakuna Matata” (I claim responsibility for the extreme fish nerdiness). Getting a three year old to sing about systematics without realizing it—I’d say that’s mission accomplished.

And then, of course, there was the “after hours puppet show,” the adults-only performance that was largely an incentive to get everyone to stick around and clean up on Sunday evening when Open House was through. Sometimes by request we’d first perform the regular puppet show for all the folks who were too busy working their shifts to catch it during Open House. Then we’d frantically tape the faces of unsuspecting audience members onto the puppets during a quick change, and commence with a “not safe for work” version of the show filled with dirty jokes and jabs at various students, faculty, and staff—or sometimes a completely new and barely intelligible creation. With beers in hand, I think our audience wasn’t too bothered by whether the storyline made any sense. It was a fitting way to cap off a weekend of incredible hard work and intense public outreach.

Technical difficulties often managed to thwart our best intentions to record the puppet show (the regular show, that is – strict rules against filming the after-hours show!). We did succeed one year (see this ). But I have to say the real magic comes in seeing (and performing) a show live. The shows will definitely live on fondly in my memory—and hopefully in those of some young audience members turned marine scientists.

Here is a link to a video of the 2013 MLML Puppet Show on the deep sea:

Flaming Heads Cruise

By Kenneth and Susan Coale  (15 September 2015)

When John Martin came to MLML in 1973, he brought with him an interest in oceanography that stretched the capacity of the MLML fleet. Several high profile grants with prominent scientists, both national and international, brought vigor and national recognition to the study of metal and nutrient cycling, well beyond the bounds of California’s 3-mile limit. With an expanding program in Oceanography at MLML, the Marine Laboratories were rapidly outgrowing the meager and primitive accommodations of the R/V Oconostota, a converted ocean-going tug boat, more affectionately known as the Rolly “O”.

R/V Oconostota or the Rolly "O"

The R/V Oconostota was a “gift” from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, yet due to it’s inherent unseaworthiness, propensity for violent rolls and a nefarious captain, John Martin was looking for another vessel and an upgrade to the oceanographic profile of the MLML fleet. Having been recently installed as the Labs’ Director, and also holding a new position on the UNOLS Council, John had a bird’s eye view of the entire US research fleet. He had recently sailed aboard the R/V Cayuse out of Oregon State University (OSU) in a crossing from Honolulu to Moss Landing in the summer of 1977, and was thinking this kind of vessel could be a good replacement. When OSU took possession of the newly built R/V Wecoma, MLML was able to bid successfully for the acquisition of the R/V Cayuse. This is an example of institutional positioning. John always positioned MLML in the waste stream of other, richer institutions, and in that position, shit happens! MLML proudly took possession of the R/V Cayuse in 1979 and by the early 1980s John and his group were deep into the CEROP (NSF, Chemical Exchange Rates with Oceanic Particles, with UCSC) and VERTEX (NSF, Vertical Transport and Exchange) programs with many collaborators.

The Oregon State University named many of their vessels after American Indian features and peoples of their region and MLML did not discover until later, that the word “Cayuse” also meant “bucking horse”. The R/V Cayuse was not originally built as a research vessel, few boats were in those days. She was a fishing boat with a large empty front hold with a hundred tons of buoyancy. The staterooms and heads were installed there. She was known for being “lively”. Not only could she jump and buck, she could pitch, roll, yaw, lurch and kick. Even under calm conditions, many “blew their cookies” and pitched their lunch, breakfast and dinner across her rails. We found out later that OSU knew about this ride, in fact there had been a few instances where the mates on watch actually passed out on the bridge. A doctor was called in to evaluate the vessel and measured acceleration forces in excess of 2 g’s when the ship would right itself while rising from the trough of a swell. The crew were blacking out due to the type of g-force hypotension normally experienced by jet pilots wearing compression suits and breathing oxygen. The R/V Cayuse, however, was not so provisioned, but we were not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

R/V Cayuse in Yaquina Bay, OR when operated by Oregon State University.

With increasing oceanographic activity, a steady stream of students and technicians set to sea aboard the R/V Cayuse to sample water, plankton and sinking particulate matter. Free-floating sediment traps, known as PITS (Particle Interceptor Traps), were deployed and followed for days to measure carbon flux. Water samples were spiked with 14C to measure primary production. Chlorophyll, nutrients, salinities, oxygens, were all measured on board, while trace metal samples dripped through Chelex columns and PIT samples sloshed back and forth in their petri dishes under the dissecting microscope. The R/V Cayuse supported all of the activity of a vessel twice her size with half the people. Many students piled aboard and got their degrees using the data collected on these cruises, but even for the die-hard committed and determined researchers, these cruises were exhausting.

The vessel had been rode hard and put up wet, yet propulsion and engine control systems were basically sound and, aside from the normal winch and electronic demons that surfaced from time to time, the vessel was serviceable and compliant with Coast Guard standards…except for one thing. The State of California had established wastewater discharge criteria that were more stringent than the Oregon standards and within three miles from the coast the R/V Cayuse had only a few options to bring her waste treatment system into compliance: Hold it, Treat it, or Burn it. One problem was that the jurisdictional concept of the three-mile limit had recently been adjudicated in federal court. A suit brought by the fishing community contended that the limit should be 3 miles from shore, yet there are special considerations for bays and estuaries. The courts found that for Monterey Bay, the three mile boundary extended outside a line drawn between Point Santa Cruz to the North and Point Piños to the South, the entire bay was within the waste discharge restriction area as mandated by the California Department of Fish and Game. Because more and more of the research was conducted within the Bay and there were no pump-out facilities in Moss Landing at the time, engineering options were explored. The expansion of holding tanks was ruled out due to the fact that the hold was built out with staterooms and heads. The installation of a treatment plant was ruled out due to the lack of room in the engineering spaces for the bulky treatment units of the time, leaving incineration a promising alternative.

New stainless steel heads replaced the porcelain thrones. Accessory ventilation was installed and diesel fuel line extended from the engine room to the head and a spark plug was rigged in every unit. This seemed the kind of system that was designed with the exuberance and ingenuity of a mischievous 8 year old boy. Students Debbie Fellows, Susan Coale, Madeleine Urrere, Merrit Tuel, and Ginger Armbrust were accompanied by Technicians Sara Tanner and Craig Hunter with Researcher George Knauer on the maiden voyage of this new system. Their cruise plan called for 24/7 operations in Monterey Bay and offshore regions doing hydrocasts for seawater, tows for plankton, deployments of PITS and lots of shipboard analysis. Little did they know that those of salps, copepods and euphausiids were not going to be the only fecal pellets they would study on this voyage.

It's great what pictures you can get from the web.

About day two out of the dock, the heads malfunctioned, about the same time that the crew’s initial constipation was beginning to ease. A flow of waste and vomit entered the new system. The engineer worked to free the clogs and adjust the fuel jets. There was some improvement, but maybe too much. The next person to the head, upon flushing, ignited the entire mass of debris. The load started burning and had to be subdued with a fire extinguisher. Smoke, flames and heat blackened the walls. It has been said that the next flush blew the entire contents out of the head, covering the walls, ceiling, and occupant, but this account may be more myth than fact. What is undeniable is that the heads filled with spew and scat in a swill of diesel fuel and toilet paper. The stench of diesel smoke and fumes, mixed with sewage, burnt and raw, filled the staterooms and the labs above, aggravating the nausea that was already setting in. Although the heads were never secured, the bowels of the scientists and crew stopped functioning for the remainder of the 5-day cruise. Some could relieve themselves over the side, others used a bucket, but this was dangerous on a pitching and rolling platform. People switched quickly to a liquid diet in spite of the sumptuous fare served up by the cook, MaryJoe. The officers together with the scientific party and crew soldiered on.

Upon docking in Moss Landing, the disembarkation was urgent and direct, still the mission was successful. As the story spread, a legend began to take shape and those participants and their super-human constitutions became unwitting celebrities. Tee shirts were silkscreened, memorializing the now famed “Flaming Heads Cruise”. In spite of this notoriety, the toilets were quickly remodeled, heads removed and a more conventional disposal system installed. All participants went on to promising careers and the story only buttressed Moss Landing’s reputation for producing some hard-core, bad-ass oceanographers. MLML has remained in the waste stream of some very renowned institutions and it has served us well, as several significant acquisitions have been realized in benefit of our students, staff and faculty. The R/V Cayuse continued in service of the UNOLS fleet for many years, only to be replaced by the more capable R/V Point Sur (formerly the R/V Cape Florida) from the University of Miami (another institution with a rich waste stream). Captain Don Bradford delivered the R/V Cayuse to a research consortium in the Gulf of Maine where the ship was renamed the R/V Argo Maine and Don sailed as Captain until retirement. Although John never looked a gift horse in the mouth, he paid more attention to the other end of the beast from then on.





The Day of the Quake

By Jim Harvey and Mary Yoklavich (4 September 2015)

MLML before the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989.

It was 17 October 1989 at 5:04 p.m. and I (Jim) was standing outside one of the MLML classrooms talking to Dr. Mike Ledbetter (Geological Oceanography faculty member). Mike had just concluded a lecture to one of my classes on the topic of writing a successful grant for funding. I really wanted to get home to watch the third game of the World Series between the SF Giants and the Oakland A’s (I am a Giants fan so the end result of that series sucks). That was when the 15-sec, 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake shook our world. Although the epicenter was about 37 km north of MLML, liquefaction was enough to cause the foundation to move 1 meter toward the ocean, tweaking and destroying the building but not knocking it over.

Front part of MLML after earthquake, with Director's office on far left. The seawall and ocean are just to the left.

I have many memories of that 15-second quake:

  1. Calling the students back as they were running from the class. They were trying to get out of the courtyard but potentially running under the water tank that was swaying 2-3 feet each way with water sloshing out;
  2. Pipes and windows in the courtyard were breaking sequentially;
  3. A spontaneous water fountain was spouting about 3’ high from the release of interstitial water in the volleyball court;
  4. Mike Ledbetter was nervously warning us that there may be a tsunami, which there was but it was minimal;
  5. A seiche developed in the Moss Landing Harbor;
  6. And students spent the night at the Labs to keep out looters, or maybe just so they had an excuse for a beach bonfire and some beers.
Starting a bonfire after the earthquake (likely from portions of the Labs they didn't like). From left in the foreground are MLML’ers Aaron King, Andrew DeVogeleare, and Eric Nigg.

Immediately after the earthquake, we surveyed the Labs and found that no one was hurt and almost all the specimens, equipment, and furniture were intact. We tried to vacate the island, thinking a tsunami might be coming. Of course, if there had been one, we would have been wiped out given how long it took us to realize that a tsunami was a possibility. In an effort to get off the island, we had to climb about 2’ feet up onto the 1-way bridge because the land had sunk on both sides. Once the danger of a tsunami was past, we returned to the Labs to watch water repeatedly drain in and out of the harbor (it was seiche a sight to see).

On The Day of the Quake, I (Mary) was in the MLML library finishing up a manuscript on rockfish reproduction. Jim and I had just returned to the Monterey Bay in August, after having been in Newport, Oregon and then Seattle, Washington for 10 years. Apparently that was long enough for this California girl to forget what an earthquake felt like.

The library circa 1986. We still have these tables in the library today.

It was just after 5 p.m. and the library was almost vacant…except for an ichthyology grad student Danny Heilprin, the librarian Sheila Baldridge, and myself. When the building started to shake, my first thought was that one of the fish-packing trucks cut a corner too sharply and hit the corner of the Lab. As the library wall separated from the foundation and I could see the wet sand below, I thought this truck company was in BIG TROUBLE. Danny shouted that this was an earthquake and to get under one of the heavy oak tables.

Once the shaking subsided, the three of us found that we couldn’t exit the building through the library doors…they were jammed shut. I remember that Danny helped Sheila and I escape through a small sliding window, all three of us jumping down to the seawall. We three – Danny, Sheila, and I – will always be joined in my memories of the Day of the Quake.

White arrow points to the seawall onto which Sheila, Danny, and Mary escaped from the damaged library minutes after the earthquake shook the Labs. (Photo: Danny Heilprin)

Director John Martin was at home when the quake occurred.  Danny Heilprin remembers driving his beat-up Honda Accord down the fire road, through the dunes to call John on the pay phone at the ML Liquor store, relaying what had happened at the Labs. This, of course, started the Labs’ long saga known as ‘the trailer trash years’, which we will write about soon.

Aaron King and Lucy Littlejohn (Wold) enjoy a beverage at the entrance to the earthquake-damaged building some time after the quake (notice the plants growing up through the damaged concrete and the "keep out" sign to the right).

We hope others will send us their experiences of this eventful day.