Life in the Trailers

By Jim Harvey (Additions from Kenneth Coale) (30 October 2015)


After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake had destroyed the main buildings of MLML, Faculty and Researchers scattered. Some moved in with the recently established MBARI in Pacific Grove, others filled the vaults of the abandoned bank in Castroville with museum samples, Administration moved into the Blue House, at one time MLML was scattered over 34 locations in Monterey County, including the abandoned sugar mill in Spreckles. In spite of this separation MLML continued to function as a multicellular organism, whose cells were strewn about. Classes were being held outside, or in other host facilities and e-mail was not yet a functioning communication tool. It was finally decided that MLML should consolidate and would temporarily relocate to Salinas. Initially Gail Fullerton (SJSU President at the time) arranged for MLML to be relocated to a new but unoccupied satellite campus of SJSU on Blanco Circle near the southern outskirts of Salinas. Within a year or so, it was obvious that MLML had to find a new home and luckily the Monterey County Office of Education was planning to place pre-constructed buildings in a lot right next to MLML’s temporary location on Blanco Circle. Thus the “MLML Salinas Trailer Park” years began in 1991 (Fig. 1).


MLML trailer park on Blanco Circle in Salinas.

Some of us called our temporary laboratories the “Salinas Marine Lab” (SML), appropriately pronounced smell because of the morning odor of chocolate from a nearby Nestle factory and the aroma of fertilizers from the surrounding fields as onshore breezes started in the afternoon. Midday was a nice mix. The cemetery to the rear of the property kept one side of the property quiet, and reminded us of how lucky we were, whereas the nearby hospital truck traffic serenaded us with an anthropogenic cacophony. The sounds and smells of the place were unfamiliar and nothing about the location resembled a marine lab, except…. all marine Labs have trailers

MLML trailers led to the constant sound of people going up and down the ramps.

Much of the MLML equipment, materials and supplies were placed in storage at a warehouse on Vertin Avenue in Salinas. “Vertin” also contained the machine shop facilities because the trailers did not have the necessary power or space to support fabrication. The library, some shop equipment, research labs, administrative offices, and teaching classrooms were jammed into these pre-constructed buildings. A triple-wide served as our “seminar room”. Although most of the teaching and lab research was conducted at SML, a variety of trailers and other buildings back on the shores of Monterey Bay provided space for a classroom, the Benthic Lab, State Mussel Watch program, Sea Grant Marine Advisor, USGS, some of the Trace Metals lab, Diving, Marine Operations and others.

Functioning as a marine lab was now all the more challenging based on our existence in trailers, the distance of Salinas to the ocean, and the lack of running seawater. Commute times soared, especially for those commuting from Santa Cruz County.  And how can it be called a “real” marine lab without the smell of rotting kelp on the beach. Many of the faculty had their offices in their lab trailers, so conversations with students or others were not that private. But the number of students applying to MLML and graduating did not decrease during the 10 + years that MLML remained in Salinas. In fact, MLML enrollment increased … a true testament to the “spirit” of MLML. Many students spent their entire MLML career at the trailers and still valued their education and experience. One great benefit was that we closer to good Mexican food.

My wife Mary reminisced about her impressions of working in the Ichthyology Trailer as a research associate (and former grad student) of Greg Cailliet during this time. Even though his office and laboratory space had been dramatically reduced by at least 50%, Greg thoughtfully and generously made room for everyone. The Ich Trailer included: three tiny offices (with doors) for Greg, Val Loeb, and Mary; a common space housing several graduate students elbow-to-elbow along a work bench, each one peering into their microscopes to sort plankton, or count daily growth bands in otoliths, or identify prey items from fish stomachs, while other students performed chemical analyses under an exhaust hood rigged up in the trailer. Even a past student returned to finish writing his thesis while in the trailer. It sounds like a hardship, but the experience must have made the students extra resilient and determined because most of them now are successful research professionals at universities and federal labs from Hawaii to Santa Barbara to Seattle and beyond.

Kate Stanbury, Erica Burton, and Jean deMarignac squeezed into the Ich Lab trailer in Salinas.

This existence lasted for another 10 years until MLML finally moved back into the new building on January 10, 2000, having stretched considerably, the definition of “temporary”.

We would love for you to comment and describe your experiences from the Trailer Daze.


Here is the picture to which Andrew refers in his Comments below:

Boehlert Hall on the property we now call Norte in Moss Landing.


Jon and Larry: We Wouldn’t Be On The Hill Without Them

By Jim Harvey, Kenneth Coale, and Greg Cailliet (21 October 2015)


An institution such as ours exists on many levels. MLML is loosely integrated into the fabric of the State’s educational system, we have a community presence (both fiscally and organizationally), we are involved at local, state and federal levels through formal agreements, and we are socially connected. We are also personally connected to a group of individuals who resonate strongly with our mission, our values, ethics and deeds. These are our allies, who at critical times, have stepped up to help us out of a jamb, or helped us to solve a difficult problem. We would not have them without strong personal connections and an impressive and honorable institutional record. Although there are many such individuals, around this time of year (October 17) our memories bring to mind a few who really made a difference for us.

Crack in the floor after the 1989 earthquake.

MLML survived the earthquake and was able to create an incredible new home on the hill in part because of two amazing individuals, Jon Raggett and Larry Horan. Both of them are no longer with us but their relatively recent deaths seemed to beg for us to tell their stories.

After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the lab had been destroyed but all the equipment, furniture, samples, computers, and DATA were still in the building. The Monterey County officials immediately came out to the site and red tagged the building. No one was to enter the building, and the plan was to raze the entire building without allowing the contents to be removed. This was outrageous.

Jon Raggett

There were unpublished thesis data and long-term datasets in there, there were valuable samples collected over many years in there, there were atomic absorption spectrophotometers, an electron microscope, alpha spectrometers, microscopes, tools, an entire library, furniture, and there was other good stuff in there, as well. In addition, there were thousands of reagents, toxic substances, and environmental hazards. There was enough Rhodamine dye to turn Elkhorn Slough pink and probably enough formalin to pickle all organisms there as well. To simply scrape the building and take it to a landfill would miss an important salvage opportunity and create an environmental disaster. Director John Martin had a friend who was an engineer, Jon Raggett.

Jon Raggett had gone through the Carmel schools, graduated from Princeton, received an M.S. from Stanford, and a Ph.D. from Princeton. He was trained as an engineer, and had worked in earthquake research and structural engineering. John talked to Jon, and Jon convinced the Monterey County folks to allow him to oversee some short-term shoring of the structure that would allow the MLML people access to the building to remove its contents. So over a few days Jon instructed us where to place posts and beams, and a small crew of faculty, staff, and students with hardhats on would enter a room and quickly pass all the things in the room out the door. Outside the building was a long line of MLMLers that passed the contents along until it reached waiting U-Haul vans that carried the insides of MLML to Salinas.


Removing everything from MLML after the quake.

Jon basically saved the day and the data. Many a thesis was saved, and now much of what we have in the new building is stuff removed from the old lab. We would have had to start from scratch if Jon had not come to our rescue.

Removing an instrument from the earthquake-destroyed lab.

Jon Raggett’s contribution to MLML is fitting because one of his many accomplishments was the creation of School3, a nonprofit that funded building schools in developing countries. School3 has built more than 71 schools in places like Africa, Honduras, and India. We think you can add one more school to that list because Jon was a huge part of rebuilding MLML.

Larry Horan

The other person that was instrumental to the rebuilding of MLML was Larry Horan. MLML had been told shortly after the earthquake that a new building would be constructed within 2 years. After moving to Salinas into temporary trailers, a long battle began about whether we could place a new lab on the hill in Moss Landing. Some local residents did not think it was wise to place the lab on the hill, thus began many days spent presenting our case to the Board of Supervisors or any other regulatory agency considering the location of the displaced MLML. It soon was apparent that we needed local representation that knew the law, knew the local politics, and could argue our position in all the various places. We found Larry Horan, and his legal partner, Mark Blum.

Larry was a remarkable individual. He was a graduate of Boldt Law School at UC Berkeley where he also played intercollegiate basketball. This helped to both feed and sharpen his competitive edge on and off the court(s).  He also was known as a scholar of the first amendment, which helped him not only to champion for those seeking first amendment protection, but also to listen deeply to what people of different persuasions were saying. He took this very seriously and respected everybody's voice and he in turn, earned great respect from both his colleagues and the justice system. During the earthquake reconstruction days when those fighting our plans threatened the rebuilding of MLML, careers, and every way of life for MLML, few of us were willing or able to actually hear what others were saying.  We were too busy being reactive, defensive, and fighting for our lives.  Larry would always remind us (in very gentle ways), that the success of our case would come about by listening carefully, doing our due diligence, and never interfering with another's rights.  Because he listened carefully, he was able to dismantle arguments made by our detractors and skillfully dispatch them with the utmost integrity.  It made all the difference for us to know that we had a legal giant on our side, who was first a person of integrity and compassion. He always made sure we actually did take the higher ground.

As you know we finally prevailed, a spectacular lab space was constructed, many students, staff, and faculty have enjoyed the new lab space we occupy, and the Monterey Bay community also uses this space constantly. These two fine men of the Monterey community were instrumental in getting MLML out of a wreck and into a new place.

The new MLML at sunset.

Scientific Diving at MLML: The early years

by Mike Foster (14 October 2015)

Future MLML Dive Officer, 1963

Scientific diving has been an integral part of MLML since 1968 when the first dive class was taught at the Labs during summer session through San Francisco State. Eight students were certified. The program continued under SFS supervision with the diving course taught by MLML graduate students who were certified scuba instructors. The first resident diving officer was Tommy Thompson, hired as the faculty phycologist but also to assume responsibilities for the dive program and liaison with the growing Sea Grant Program. A State funded MLML staff position for dive officer did not exist until the early 1980s so faculty members who were interested and were instructors served as dive officers. Tommy, through Sea Grant, upgraded the program by acquiring dive equipment and support for a subtidal ecology class. He left the faculty in 1976 to become the area Sea Grant Marine Advisor.

Post subtidal class clean up a the "dive facility" ~ 1978. Kathy Casson on left.

This left an opening for a phycologist and dive officer that I gladly applied to fill. The Labs also hired Ann Hurley as co-dive officer and invertebrate ecologist. I was an inactive NAUI scuba instructor at the time, and reactivation required attending a NAUI Instructor class and doing a check out dive with an active instructor. The evaluation ranks as two of the most unpleasant dives I’ve ever had – drops to the mud at 80’ off the Labs to check on a caging experiment with grad students Larry Hulberg and Cheryl Hannan (now Zimmer) – foggy and choppy on the surface, cold and murky on the bottom – and no kelp. But I passed with an increased appreciation for Benthic Bub field work.

Neither Ann nor I were enthused about teaching the dive class, and relied on a dedicated group of MLML grad students and certified scuba instructors, including Larry Hulberg, Steve Pace and Kathy Casson, who were more than willing to teach the class. This worked well for all, and started the tradition of MLML financing instructor certification for students willing to teach the class or serve as assistants. Gary Ichikawa, Bob vanWagenen and John Heine were among those who became instructors as a result. John became full-time dive officer after MLML lobbied successfully to make it a staff position.

Dive facilities were relatively primitive – the compressor and dive locker were located in front of the outdoor aquaria in an area that had been the covered car park for the Beaudette Foundation. When I arrived the State ‘dive truck’ was a rusty, beat up International carry-all with divers using their own cars as needed. The first dive boat for the subtidal class was an old, salvaged black raft powered by a 15 horse outboard, later augmented by a donated Avon dingy towed behind the raft. The unisex shower, shared with volley ball players, was a cinder block structure outside the then seminar room with a wooden pallet on the floor. No doubt everyone who used the shower would have contracted some foot disease if they had to stand in the gunk beneath the pallet.

Roger Ogren counting Pterygophora in Stillwater Cove using a high tech toilet float quadrat, 1978. Photo by Steve Pace.

None of that mattered much: with Labs support MLMLers could learn to dive, get underwater, have fun, and do interesting research. The core of the dive program has always been student enthusiasm and willingness to help each other, supervised by diving officers whose main concern is making it as easy as possible to get underwater safely and efficiently.

Future blogs will include "Scientific Diving at MLML: the middle years" by John Heine, and one on the most current years by Diana Steller.

Marine Dreams

By John Heine (7 October 2015)

John Heine, former MLML graduate student and DSO, self-published a book in 2012 entitled "Marine Dreams", about a marine lab in central California. You can guess what it is based on. We provide an excerpt for this weeks blog. We hope you recognize aspects of the book. This week we also feature pictures from former student, Scott Gabara.



Monterey Bay has some of the thickest, richest kelp forests to be found.  The forests also harbor a myriad diversity of other seaweeds, invertebrates, fishes, birds and mammals. The giant kelp, Macrocystis, is one of the fastest growing plants on the planet.  It can grow a couple feet a day under ideal conditions.

Like forests found on land, the kelp forest has distinct seasons.  In the fall, when the days are warm and water circulation is low, the kelp starts to deteriorate, or senesce, and becomes weakened.  The first storms of winter can wreak havoc on the forest.

Diving in the kelp forest can be surreal at times.  Rays of sunlight stab through the surface kelp canopy and bend all over on their way to the bottom.  The kelp appears to be golden brown, and when waving back and forth in the surge, it can be quite hypnotizing.  Swimming through the forest brings all kinds of opportunities to see large fish like cabezon, lingcod, and rockfish.  If you are lucky you might swim with a harbor seal, sea lion, or sea otter.

Harbor seal in kelp bed. Photo by Scott Gabara.

But most of the time for Elkhorn Marine Lab students the kelp forest was just their location for experiments.  The thick canopy just means pulling up the outboard motor and rowing across the kelp canopy, as there is often no way to motor through it.  The canopy can be so thick and stable that small boats can be tied off to it, not even needing to anchor.  The spectacular days of 100 foot visibility are few, and typically the water is cold and dark.

Kelp. Photo by Scott Gabara.

Will was trying out his experimental apparatus for the first time in open water.  He had tried it in the lab, and it had worked just fine, but it was a whole different ballgame out here in the ocean.  His setup consisted of three acrylic boxes, which held five liter-sized canning jars for the seaweeds.   One group of jars was covered with aluminum foil to simulate dark, nighttime conditions.  He had to take the jars down without the lids on, because if they were screwed on at the surface, he would never get them off underwater due to the pressure.

Eggyolk jellyfish. Photo by Scott Gabara

After they tied up the boat to the kelp, he lowered the boxes down on a line to the bottom.  He carried a bag with the jars, lids, magnetic stir bars, and assorted tools.  His buddy, Ricardo, carried the sensor for the light meter.  Ricardo, better known as “Ricki”, was an international student from Argentina.  He could be found around EML at all hours of the day and night sipping on his mate from the traditional gourd.

On the seafloor, Will assembled the boxes and attached some weights to keep them steady on the bottom.  He collected some Sea Grapes, a bushy red seaweed which resembled small table grapes, and cut them into small pieces to be placed into the jars, along with a magnetic stir bar, which was used to keep oxygen bubbles from forming.  When all the jars were set up, including two “controls” with water only, he wrote down the start time on his slate.  Will collected a jar of ambient water to measure the initial dissolved oxygen concentration, and Ricardo cable-tied the light sensor to the side of the middle box.  Then they headed up to the surface for a break.

“Hey, that went pretty smooth,” said Ricki.

“Yeah, not too bad, thanks for the help,” Will replied, as he unscrewed the top off the thermos and poured some hot coffee.  He was shivering already from just the first dive.  I still need to order that wetsuit he thought.

“Did you see that wolf eel?” asked Ricki.

“No, where was it?”

“Right next to the boxes!  I can’t believe you didn’t see it,” exclaimed Ricki.

“Well, I was a little busy.”  It was common that you only saw what you were looking for, and often two people on the same dive saw different things.  He wished that Ricardo had pointed it out though, as he had never seen a wolf eel underwater.  He knew they could get to be about 5 feet long, and looked menacing, as they open and close their toothy jaws to pump water across their gills.

Photo by Scott Gabara.

Will got out the photometer, which measures the light intensity underwater.  He hooked up the end of the cable that led to the collector on the sea floor.  After taking ambient readings in the air with the deck cell, he took some readings from underwater.  The kelp canopy typically filters out 99% of the surface light in only the top few inches of water, so light levels on the bottom can be quite low.  This was one of the questions Will had for his thesis:  how do the seasonally variable light levels affect the photosynthetic rates of some common seaweeds?  He was measuring both of these for the first time today.

As they got their tanks switched for the second dive, a sea otter popped up through the kelp nearby.  “Sandra is thinking of a sea otter costume for the Halloween party,” said Will.

“Typical mammal lab costume.  There’s at least one every year,” Ricki replied.

“Yeah, I said the same thing.  I suggested something a little more exotic like a narwhal.  What are you thinking of coming as?” asked Will.

Snubnose sculpin (Orthonopias triacis) at bottom of kelp forest. Photo by Scott Gabara.

“Maybe a homeless person, or maybe as a sponge, I’m not sure yet.  And you?” Ricki asked.

“Maybe kelp.  But does everybody have to come as representing the organism that they study?  It all seems so dull, so predictable.  Maybe I’ll just pick up a mask at the thrift store and be anonymous all night, just wander around freaking people out.  Like Nixon or something.”

“Sounds alright to me” Ricki said.

“On this dive we need to take down an extra scuba bottle and the stirring platform and give each bottle a 30 second stir.  Would you mind taking pictures of the setup?  I can use some for my thesis defense and talk at WSN (the Western Society of Naturalists, often confused with a nudist group)” said Will.

“Sure, sounds good.”

So they headed down for the second dive.  Will set up the stirring platform and placed the first acrylic tray on it.  The air-driven magnets in the jars were spun by compressed air from the scuba tank.  Will had devised this setup based on a similar one he had used as an undergraduate.  The idea was to keep oxygen bubbles from forming, because if they came out of solution, he wouldn’t be able to measure the oxygen concentration accurately.  After the 30 second stir, he did the same with the other two trays, while Ricki snapped some photos.  So far, so good, everything seemed to be working out.

Photo by Scott Gabara.

After a three hour incubation time, the experiment was over.  Will and Ricki brought the jars back up to the boat, and Will put a chemical into each jar to “fix” the solution, so he could measure the oxygen concentration later in the lab.  They packed the boat up to head back to shore.   Everything needed to be well stowed, as they had to take the Zodiac through the surf up onto the sandy beach.  This was a tricky maneuver, which required some skill, patience, and timing.  As they neared the surf, Will slowed down and looked back over his shoulder to see if there were any waves coming.  His method was to wait until a set broke through, then to ride near the back of the last wave and on up to the beach.

He unlocked the engine tilt mechanism, so it would tilt up if (when) they hit the bottom.  When the time was right, he gunned the motor and they surfed right up onto the sand.  He quickly tilted the motor, and they hopped out and used the surge to drag the boat up higher on the beach.  This was the critical moment, because if the surf was high, a wave could break over the transom and swamp the boat, making it impossible to move.

They swung the boat around 180 degrees so the bow was facing the surf.  This helped to deflect the waves and keep the inside dry.  Ricki held the bow steady while Will started to unload, carrying gear up to the steps to the parking lot.  He unloaded the sensitive scientific equipment first, then they switched places and Ricki unloaded the dive gear.

Blue rockfish. Photo by Scott Gabara.

When they were all packed up, they headed off to the boathouse to rinse the gear and stow it away.  The boathouse was an old fire station that was in the harbor, which made it ideal for storing boats on trailers and for launching boats to go up the slough.  It was a busy place, as most of the class field trips staged their equipment here.  After Will and Ricki cleaned up and stowed the gear, they headed down the street to the lab to work on their thesis projects.

Photo by Scott Gabara.